Political polls fail to reflect true impact of Dail’s growing band of Independents

World of Politics with Harry McGee – harrymcgee@gmail.com

Finian McGrath has three claims to fame. One is that he was born and reared in Tuam and is a true sham. The second is that he is the brother of Fergal ‘Red’ McGrath, a major figure in arts in the west of Ireland. The third is that he’s a TD, and an Independent one at that.

On every occasion we publish an opinion poll in The Irish Times, it’s inevitable that one of us will bump into Finian as he congregates with the handful of smokers in the yard of Leinster House.

His moustache, which sometimes makes him look like one of the characters in James Joyce’s Ulysses, is habitually creased into a smile. But that can be a little diverting because there’s also a glint of steel there (he would not have survived three elections in Dublin North Central if that was not so). 

When Finian buttonholes you after an opinion poll has been published, he will say something along the lines of: “You’ve completely ignored the Independents and others again. But they are still on 20 per cent.”

And he has a point. It’s a sign of the continuing volatility in the Irish political landscape that roughly one in five voters say they are voting for ‘none of the above’. They are rejecting Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour and Sinn Féin, to plump for a candidate who is either Independent or belongs to a smaller party.

And being newspaper people and liking everything to be defined – in black and white – we tend to ignore the Independents in the narrative to concentrate on the more graspable narrative of the main parties being up and down.

There is a bit of a problem when you are trying to analyse Independents and how they will fare. It’s the same quandary that Henry Kissinger observed with the EU: “Who do I pick up the phone and talk to when I want to talk to Europe?” he asked rhetorically.

Nonetheless, Independents have done very well in Ireland over the past two decades. Our system of proportional representation in multi-seat constituencies (plus the fact that we are a small society) lends itself to ensuring Independents get elected.

The number elected has fluctuated a lot in recent elections but you cannot deny that Independents have been influential. There was, for instance, the Gang of Four who bolstered the Fianna Fáil-led government from 1997 and got lots of goodies for their constituencies in return.

In the last Dáil, another Fianna Fáil-led government was dependent on a number of Independents of which Finian McGrath was one for a while.

The problem with being an Independent is you cannot be pretend to be anything more. Occasionally you will get a chance to be influential, if you and a few others hold the balance of power.

There were so many this time around – 16, excluding the United Left Alliance – that they were able to form a technical group. And that seemed to be replete with possibilities.

The group has allowed Independent TDs privileges usually only available to parties – rights to representation and chairs of committees; the right to table private member motions; the right to have a whip; and the right to ask priority questions.

With so much guaranteed ‘air time’, a good few have acquired very strong national profiles including McGrath himself, Mattie McGrath, Shane Ross, Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly. It also allows them a slot on the high-profile Leaders’ Questions each week.

But it’s a technical group and when you have right-of-centre people like Shane Ross and Stephen Donnelly in the same team as left wingers like Catherine Murphy and Thomas Pringle, it means it will be hard to achieve coherence.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.