Is the party over?

The latest opinion poll figures in Ireland suggest that independent candidates in the forthcoming general election may do very well: they are currently scoring 15 per cent, only one percentage point lower than Fianna Fáil. If this kind of support is maintained on the actual polling day it could, at least in theory, produce a record number of independent TDs (members of the Dáil, i.e. the lower house of parliament). This would create a completely different political composition of the country’s parliament from that of any other state (apart from Canada) of which I am aware. What does this signify, and does it matter?

Historically independent members of parliament are often elected on single-issue platforms, often to do with local services in the constituency. Where a government does not have a clear majority independent parliamentarians can become crucial to sustaining them in power, and often this is achieved through bargaining that involves the provision of resources or facilities for the area or region. A quick study of the parliamentary career of Jackie Healy-Rae in Ireland illustrates this point.

At a time when political parties are not held in very high esteem the electorate may be more willing to experiment with independents, and may even find them a better proposition. But in fact they distort the political system, because for the most part at least they are unpredictable. Taken as a group they do not represent a recognisable political direction, and so they do not help in the maintenance of sustainable and coherent policy-making, which at this point in our economic fortunes is particularly necessary. They also may, in some cases at least, represent the pursuit of pork barrell practices to support one area at the expense of others.

An interesting development in Ireland was the recent attempt to assemble a group of independent candidates (including journalists and commentators David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole) and allow them to run under one organisational umbrella, to be called ‘Democracy Now’. However, the individuals who would have made up that group have wildly differing views on almost all matters imaginable, ranging from the fairly extreme right to the very radical left. They would have been committed to a common goal of political reform and the renegotiation of the recent Irish bail-out, but it would have been difficult for them to unite around substantive principles even in those contexts. In the event the group has decided not to proceed, and only one of them, Shane Ross, seems determined to stand as an independent.

It is my view that independents representing university seats in the Seanad, Ireland’s upper house, have played a very valuable role. But the game in the Dáil is a different one, and for me at least there is no evidence that independent TDs enhance democracy and progress. I therefore hope that current opinion poll figures turn out to be wrong. In the end, the capacity of citizens to have their political priorities reflected in government will depend on their ability to vote for a manifesto held in common by a group large enough to form an administration. I hope that the political parties are not finished yet.

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9 Comments on “Is the party over?”

  1. Trich Says:

    My hope is that political parties ARE finished in Ireland, as the political parties that Ireland has had since the foundation of the state are corrupt and look at where this has gotten Ireland!

    • Niall Says:

      I don’t see any evidence that they are all corrupt. Opposition parties can’t be held responsible for government mistakes.


    • If the parties were all corrupt – and I don’t see the evidence for corruption, as distinct from error – then that would probably be more a feature of the overall national culture rather than just politics. And of course, corruption amongst independents is no less likely.

  2. anna notaro Says:

    This post interestingly leads on to some wider considerations on the possible end of political parties as such, in fact the Irish political situation is not unique in the West (actually, dissatisfaction – to put it mildly – towards the governing classes seems to characterize vast areas of the world right now). Already George Washington in his Farewell Address of 1796 warned his fellow Americans against what he defined ‘the baneful effects of the spirit of Party’. Some good piece of advice!
    It is not so difficult to envisage that in the 21st century, through all of the mass communication venues we have,independent candidates could launch their personal campaign and interface with the electorate over the internet. Let’s not forget that political parties as we know them have their roots in the cultural & ideological melieu of the 19th century, in our so-called post-ideological age it is blatantly apparent that the vehicles which conveyed and channeled such ideologies are undergoing a serious crisis. One could even appreciate the appeal of voting for a real person with his/her own values instead of a platform of ideas put up by a group of people with shared agendas.
    The risk, however, to use a banal metaphor, is to throw the baby out with the bath water and to lose another key component of our social fabric at a time when a pervasive individualism is already eroding any remaining sense of public-ness. I hope that in the next decade political parties will realise that change is needed in order to survive, they cannot be viewed as detached or, worst, unable to represent the views of their electorate (efficent electoral systems are crucial of course, to this end), mastering today’s electronic means of communication cannot be the prerogative of a few techno-enthusuast parlamentarians… there is a sense of urgency to all this, the ‘End political parties’ is already a Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/pages/End-Political-Parties/110907845617301

    • Niall Says:

      How would a parliament of individuals run the country? They would have to agree on common policies – which would end up making them into a political party.

      • anna notaro Says:

        in fairness, Niall, I wrote ‘One could even appreciate the appeal of voting for a real person with his/her own values etc.’ I never argued in favour of ‘a parliament of individuals’ as you put it. I only think that the democratic process will need to incorporate, and be radically rethought in terms of, the acceleration of technology, not losing sight of what are, at least for me, key ideological values (solidarity, equality and liberty).
        One can only speculate on the political organizations and models of future governance, currently there is a lot of media hype surrounding the so-called Twitter or FB revolutions and the growing use of ‘infopower’, such journalistic accounts often forget to describe the flipside though: i.e. how governments including China and Iran, have rapidly adapted to new social media threats to their power by using the digital postings on twitter and facebook left by activists and citizens to control and suppress dissent. What we can gather from all this is that political activism (thank God!) is not dead even in the West only, and most worryngly, our political parties do not seem to be able to represent it adequately..


    • I think we need to remember that the arrival of modern-style parties was a major political advance, because it allowed the wider electorate to choose a set of national policies. If you vote for independents you are more or less excluding yourself from any role in determining a national political direction, because you have no way of knowing what the overall mix will be. Indeed, because your independent member will have to make complex decisions about how they will interact with the others after they are all elected, you don’t even know, really, what *your* elected candidate will do.

      It does not make sense.

      • anna notaro Says:

        of course the arrival of modern-style parties was a major political advance, but note the past tense, ‘was’, we shouldn’t get rid of parties per se, we need to rethink the whole idea of political representation in light of a very much changed cultural and technological context..


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