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Dependent on non-independent Independents

Our current, and recent, experience of independents in government

The 2016 election has contorted the Irish political system. It has taken months for the two big parties to come to terms with the results and input into the formation of a government. Fine Gael did not expect to do so badly in the election and Fianna Fáil did not expect to do so well.

The net result of the election is that neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael, between them, felt it would be in the national interest to form a standalone government that involves them both. A chorus of media commentators and left-wing activists wanted to persuade them to throw in their lot together and form a grand coalition.

Backroom strategists in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were privately anxious about a coalition of the two big parties both before the election and afterwards. Their main anxiety was the possibility of turning Sinn Féin into the main opposition party in Leinster House. The post-election deal has been about ensuring that Sinn Féin does not acquire the whip hand over the country.

The solution to the Sinn Féin problem has been a mixture of leaving Fine Gael in power, pulling independents into government and allowing Fianna Fáil to stay in opposition, to bide its time, build itself up and again acquire increased Dáil representation. Fianna Fáil, in the meantime, will swing the sword of Damocles just over the government, tactically voting for it and against it when it seems best for it to do so.

Enda Kenny now faces the prospect of being in office but not actually wielding power. Having lost the election, in a very personal way, he will now come under the relentless pressure of events that afflicts all leaders who indicate they are not going to lead their party into another election. How long he lasts and what he does to survive will make for an intriguing game.

My own experience of government reshuffles is that there are always plenty of people waiting in the queue to replace a sitting minister. Enda Kenny may deliver a surprise to his incumbent cabinet and ministerial team by introducing fresh blood and people who are known for their loyalty to him. His current line-up contains many who joined in the attempt to remove him when he was in opposition. Some media reports even suggest that Kenny may punish the voluble Leo Varadkar for shooting his mouth off, and not include him in his lineup when he forms his government.

The confusion, complexity and sheer instability of the current Dáil mean that Kenny may even succeed in sticking out as Taoiseach for a period of three years. The orthodox wisdom of political commentators is that he will not survive as Taoiseach or leader of Fine Gael beyond Christmas but this may be entirely wrong. Who, it might usefully be asked, is prepared to move against him? Fianna Fáil appears to view him as their best asset in the event of any unforeseen plunge towards an election.

There is already evidence of a slow-burn leadership contest that is underway within Fine Gael to replace him. Enda Kenny will have a profound influence over who replaces him. Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald would seem to have the edge over Leo Varadkar in terms of the leadership race.

Leo Varadkar has appeared petulant and ill at ease in his role as a negotiator with the dreaded Fianna Fáil representatives at their discussions in Dublin’s Trinity College. He also managed to alienate the independents by playing with his phone during their discussions. To his fans he is either sending a message or positioning himself to take over Fine Gael.

To see off any potential challenge to himself and guarantee a greater degree of stability for his government, Enda Kenny is bringing in some independents directly into positions within the government. He may enshrine independents into the heart of government in numbers that have not been seen before.

At least twelve independents could easily be integrated into a minority Fine Gael-led government. Kenny could include six independents at cabinet level and a further six as ministers of state. This would lock in the loyalty of the independents and give him an element of additional security both in the Dáil and when it comes to seeing off potential threats within his own party.

 

There are so many independents in the current Dáil and their demands, both national and local, are so disparate that it is virtually impossible to appease or placate them. Nearly half of them are from backgrounds that veer towards the populist side of the fence as distinct from the purely ideological. By putting them into government they can be in a position to sort out their local issues and at the same time take up a national role.

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In the past independents have only succeeded when they exercise their leverage in a unique way and at times when their support is vital for the survival of a minority government that is on a knife-edge in the Dáil.

In the 1960s Joe Sheridan of Westmeath (‘Vote for Joe the Man you know’) performed this task for Sean Lemass. Local delivery in the constituency seemed to be the main priority for Sheridan. It involved a very minor inconvenience for my father, the late Brian Lenihan, who would have to deploy his ministerial car to collect Joe on occasion so that he could be dispatched to the Dáil.

Tony Gregory leveraged his own position with Charlie Haughey in the mid-1980s to achieve a major urban renewal initiative for Dublin’ s inner city. It gave Gregory and his ‘£100m Gregory deal’ legendary status and ensured he was re-elected every time until he passed away in 2009. It is still not clear how profound an influence the deal had in terms of Dublin’s north inner city.

The late Jackie Healy-Rae gave strong support to Bertie Ahern’s government in both 1997 and 2007. In return Jackie got both the ear of the Taoiseach and a lot of local concessions in Kerry which have contributed mightily to the creation of a Healy-Rae political machine in Kerry that now not just rivals, but exceeds, the FF machine on the ground in the Kingdom. In 1997 Healy- Rae even secured the chairmanship of the Environment committee. Healy-Rae was one of four Independent TDs (the others were Harry Blaney, Tom Gildea and Mildred Fox) who supported the government throughout its 1997-2002 term.

After Taoiseach John Bruton announced in 1996 that Michael Lowry would not be allowed to stand as a Fine Gael candidate at the next election – following revelations of tax evasion, he resigned from the party. He stood as an independent candidate in the 1997 general election, topping the poll in Tipperary in that election, and again in the 2002 and 2007 general elections.

Michael Lowry lent his support to the 2007 Ahern-led FF-Greens government, with obvious benefits for his constituents and has spawned a dynamic political machine of his own on the ground. Other independent TDs who supported the 2007 Ahern Government were: Beverley Flynn and Finian McGrath. As well as Healy- Rae. Flynn rejoined the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party in 2008.

Independents seem to thrive on uncertainty and there is no sign that uncertainty is about to be banished from the national political scene. On the benches in Leinster House there are now no less than seven groupings that self-define as being on the left – FF, Sinn Féin, Labour, Social Democrats, the Greens, the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People before Profit.

With this level of complexity and competition the current Dáil is probably more likely to move at a much slower pace than its predecessor. Micheál Martin has insisted on Dáil reform and greater involvement of the Dáil (as distinct from the government ) in decision making. The evidence from the process of forming a government seems to bear this out.

The public should not be expecting speedy resolutions of issues, as seems to be the case, in relation to housing, Irish water, healthcare and the war on gangland crime. Finding a consensus on these issues will be far more difficult than forming a government. That alone puts a hazard sign over the lifespan of the next government.