The Irish people are thinking for themselves. How very inconvenient for the Government. Yesterday’s referendum should have been a walk in the park for the Yes side. Few arguments could have been easier to make: a rotten, elitist, unelected House was offered for the chop. Nothing was more obvious than that the disillusioned Irish people would send all those overpaid, irrelevant senators packing.
The people took a different view. They baulked at being taken for granted. They sensed that Enda Kenny was seeking a cheap political victory. Where else in the world would the champion of a populist political cause bottle it when it came to a public debate on his pet project? He blew it. Worse still, the combined forces of Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein failed to sell the easy argument that an Upper House with a deeply flawed record should be despatched off the face of the Earth.
Perhaps, if the big parties had kept off the pitch, the Yes side would have sailed through. Perhaps it was precisely because Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and Gerry Adams championed the cause of abolition that it was defeated.
Kenny and Gilmore swindled the voters by refusing to offer the “reform” option. The Government decided to corner the people, telling them that if they voted No it would be back to the same rotten old Senate. It was blackmail. If the people refused to do the Government’s bidding, they would be saddled with the same albatross.
Why did we refuse to be bullied? The No vote does not, realistically, suggest a popular affection for the Senate. Nor does it reflect a surge in support for Fianna Fail, the only party in the Dail to campaign to save the Second Chamber.
Rather, it exposes a deep distrust of the established parties. The people are fed up with being fooled. They were deeply suspicious of the main parties’ motives. And they listened to independent voices.
A small group of unaligned, but prominent, citizens gathered in opposition. A nobility of independent thinkers like ex-senator Joe O’Toole, barrister Noel Whelan, former minister Mary O’Rourke and attorney general Michael McDowell persuaded top historian Diarmaid Ferriter to join them in public meetings to oppose the Government’s attempted putsch. They enlisted the support of two independent senators, Feargal Quinn and Katharine Zappone, to steer a Reform Bill through the Upper House. The group skilfully avoided being contaminated by current party politicians.
Separately, the No campaign was supported in parallel by some of us on the independent benches in the Dail. Disaffected Fine Gael TDs, known as the Reform Alliance, joined the opposition.
Yesterday, this unique combination won. It was an extraordinary triumph.
The story is unlikely to end there. Recent political events suggest that the appetite and impetus to represent this disillusionment and distrust is gathering momentum. Politicians from all viewpoints are reaching similar conclusions. It is time to give a voice to the profound discontent reflected in yesterday’s No vote. It is now or never.
The significant support for the ‘independents’ in recent opinion polls was confirmed by yesterday’s vote. The bewildered army of “Don’t Knows” is looking for a home. The challenge for those of us in the frontline is not only to voice those views but to offer an alternative. Independents are often rightly criticised as professional hurlers on the ditch.
The voters now deserve a response from those elected as independents. We have many political differences but there is much common ground. Traditional, tribal detractors will immediately highlight the obvious clash of ideals between say, ex-Labour TD Roisin Shortall and ex-Fianna Fail TD Mattie McGrath; but that defeatist, stale thinking feeds from a political trough where the party whip rules, where there is no room for diversity and where a TD’s conscience must be parked the moment he or she enters Leinster House.
Independents suddenly have seen a responsibility thrust on them, not just by the opinion polls, nor by their growing numbers in the Dail but by yesterday’s dramatic slap in the face for the political parties that took the electorate for granted.
Around Leinster House in recent weeks, unlikely coffee companions have been spotted. There is heavy speculation about the intentions of Lucinda Creighton and some of her more moderate Reform Alliance colleagues. The intentions of Roisin Shortall and other Labour Party defectors – after her honourable resignation from the health ministry – are widely discussed . Within the ‘Technical Group’ (of which I am a member ) there is a growing realisation that the political sands are shifting fast. Yesterday was a ‘wake-up’ call.
Despite the diversity, there are acres of common ground between the independents. Some are left-wing, others right, but nearly all demand fundamental change. Most could combine on a common platform.
Which of us would not require an end to the cronyism of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Labour if we were to support the next government? Not cosmetic adjustments, but the removal of patronage from the political arena.
A new grouping would insist on a radically changed Dail, with power distributed to TDs of all parties. Opposition members’ words and amendments would not be automatically dismissed because of their provenance . The guillotine would go. Dail reform would not mean the Government’s current glib proposal of bringing TDs into work an hour early, merely to extend the opening hours of the theatre. It is the quality of work, not quantity of noise, that will count.
All independent TDs are at one about the imperative to take a far more robust stance against the bankers, are 100 per cent behind Finian McGrath’s campaign against the punitive cuts for the disabled and the need to stand up to the dictators in the Department of Finance. The more left-leaning among their number would happily live with the free marketeers’ requirement that entrepreneurs should be given top billing while bankers should be forced to lend more to small business. Left-wingers like John Halligan and Thomas Pringle could share such common ground with Wicklow’s Stephen Donnelly.
Of course there would be problems. Alliances of this sort can crumble, just as governments can, but it is not just the economic crisis that requires an initiative. The utterly unreformed political establishment has been revealed as distrusted by the Irish people.
There could be awkward moments. Some of us would find it hard to stomach regular encounters with our bearded friends in the trade unions, but we would need to learn to button our lips. Roisin Shortall might not relish the prospect of afternoon tea with Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, but the national interest may demand such ordeals from us all! Both Roisin and Lucinda, honourable departures from junior ministries, have already practised the art of compromise.
It is crystal clear that the people have finally lost faith in the antics of the main political parties. In that situation all independent members have a duty to prepare for government. The next milestone will be in June when local and European elections are held. Expect to see new names emerging with groups of independent TDs standing their own candidates in both contests. In the meantime there is plenty of political activity in the undergrowth. Unlikely alliances with common programmes are on the brink.
Shane Ross is the independent TD for Dublin South
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