The national power of the parish pump

The national power of the parish pump The late Jackie Healy Rae
Independents in Irish Party Democracy

by Liam Weeks (Manchester University Press, £80)

Michael O’Leary once dismissed them as “local lunatics”, but UCC political scientist Liam Weeks takes a more favourable view of our independent TDs, in a thorough and well-informed book.

He begins in Kerry on count night in February 2016 when independents and brothers Michael and Danny Healy-Rae not only took seats, but also won two and a half electoral quotas in first preferences alone, “a vote total that suggested had another member of the family run, he or she could also have been elected”.

Independents such as the Healy-Raes enjoy great political space, freedom from what independent senator Sean Barrett calls the “military-style discipline” to which party backbenchers are subject. The votes some attract reflect their ability to get closer to their electors than party politicians. In many countries politicians do not knock on doors. Here they do. Irish politics is, as the academics would say, ‘localised’ and  ‘candidate-centred’.  That voter-politician proximity partially accounts for the success of  independent candidates in this country.

Maureen O’Sullivan TD is one of the seven independents, or former independents, who have contributed chapters on their political careers. She affectionately recalls her mentor, Tony Gregory, a principled, tireless politician who consistently made a priority of the needs of his electors in inner-city Dublin. The price of his support was always investment in his constituency.

Dead hand

Party membership would have been a dead hand on Gregory’s shoulder. It would have involved more party meetings and fewer community meetings. Whips might have tried to rein him in, have him cut out the controversial stuff, or allow one of the rising stars in the party to share in the credit for his achievements. Independence suits such ‘activist’ politicians, O’Sullivan suggests. Finian McGrath, another protege of Tony Gregory, agrees.

Dr Weeks mounts a solid defence of independents. Yes, the constituency is their primary concern, but the constituency also figures large in the thinking of party politicians and ministers. The author cleverly illustrates the point with reference to RTÉ’s analysis of the allocation of private housing grants in 2015: “Mayo and Limerick, home of the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance, received double the national average of such grants.”

What seems to be a sop to an independent may not be one at all. Sometimes a government party dresses up a scheme long in the pipeline as a concession to an independent TD, on whom it relies for support, to make him look good back home.

Weeks rejects the widely-held belief that independents are fickle: they tend to be reliable political partners, reliable because they hear at the doors that people want stable government and plenty of time between elections. Local they may be, lunatics they’re not.