By Senator Katherine Zappone
My decision to run as an Independent candidate in Dublin South West for the next General Election affords me the freedom to think, build relationships, negotiate and act outside of the strictures and regulations of party politics and whips. Independence allows a greater creativity to bring one’s own gifts and experience to the political agenda. Freedom to think and act with imagination is precisely what Ireland needs now to change its direction from austerity politics to the politics of generativity and equality for everyone. We don’t have this kind of politics yet, but it could be fashioned. This is what I want to work towards in the next Dáil on behalf of the citizens and communities of Dublin South West.
As an Independent member of Seanad Éireann I have learned the practice of freedom politics and witnessed its impact and effectiveness. Freedom politics involves a carefully crafted methodology that begins with one’s own values and experience. Having worked as an educator, human rights advocate and progressive entrepreneur in the communities of Dublin South West and national civil society organisations, my politics start with deep and respectful listening to people’s needs and dreams. Early in my Oireachtas career I invited a group of young transgender people into Leinster House at a time when there was no legislative action towards securing legal recognition for transgender people in Ireland. Our conversation prompted my conversion to participate in this civil movement. I worked with advocates and legal experts to publish a Bill that set high benchmarks for the parties in power. Today Ireland has one of the most progressive laws in Europe on this issue.
An Independent’s political freedom demands a critical review of the Programme for Government put together by the political party or parties in power. Sometimes this means resisting the decisions of the powerful, with little or no resources, and calling on the strategic creativity and perseverance required to bring about better alternatives. Our current Government put forward Seanad abolition as one of its prime ideas to reform politics, with little apparent credible rationale.
While the practice of politics did and does require substantial reform to implement policies and laws that open opportunity for all of our people, I judged that shutting down one of the houses of parliament would consolidate power in the hands of the few rather than share it so that all public representatives could have more effective voices. So, with a small group of committed democrats, we built a campaign over the course of two years that resulted in the Seanad’s retention. Subsequently, the Seanad Reform Bill written by Democracy Matters and published by Senator Feargal Quinn and me, has significantly influenced recommendations for the reform proposals put forward by an Independent group appointed by the Taoiseach.
As an Independent, I am also free to support Government ideas contained in its Programme, if they resonate with my values, experience and judgment. It was a tremendous privilege to work alongside Government and other political parties, in strategic cooperation with Yes Equality, to advocate the successful Yes vote in the Marriage Equality referendum. As a founding member of the marriage equality movement in Ireland, practising the politics of freedom in this instance provided a way to draw on my experience of a decade of human rights advocacy.
Being an Independent, then, is not simply about freedom from a party whip, or political party discipline. Being an Independent provides freedom for thinking and action that often can be suppressed in political parties, leading to the extinguishment of creativity and the passionate pursuit of ideals rooted in one’s experience and self-knowledge. I have witnessed this happen to colleagues and it will continue to happen unless there is imaginative reform of the practice of politics (including within political parties) and a re-balancing of power between the Cabinet and members of parliament.
One of the prime reasons for the rise of the number and popularity of Independents, I think, has to do with their effective efforts to bring personal power to bear on the direction of law, policy and the investigation of corrupt or unethical practices in public, political, social and economic institutions.
This personal power is most effective when it is rooted in a creative vision inspired by the needs and dreams of our people. It provides a stronger base from which to negotiate the compromises that generate significant change.
If elected as an Independent in the next Dáil, I want to work with citizens and communities, civil society organisations and legal experts, to manoeuvre the Government compass closer to the politics of generativity and equality for everyone. •