For years it has been the case in England at council level ‘independent’ usually connotes rebel Tories disaffected with some national party line or other. They go independent because they feel there is nowhere else they can credibly go.
In Ireland, one of the effects of the STV PR system is to shred party platforms in favour of maintaining a community of often fiercely competing individuals. So redesignation as independent often was a last ditch or even first ditch exercise in saving a Parliamentary or council seat.
In this way party designations tend to operate more like franchises than separate political businesses. At the edges of these big brands have always had a tendency to atomise at the edges in hard times and then re-integrate (or not) when the good times return.
In post crash, post Tiger Ireland business for independents has never been better since the foundation of the state.
We might safely infer from this that something resembling a serious constitutional crisis is ongoing regarding Ireland’s capacity both to maintain its independence and self regulate.
The Independents themselves are, of course, a mixed and varied bunch.
In Roscommon South Leitrim, two out of the three elected TDs are independents. One Denis Naughton was elected as one of two Fine Gael candidates. He walked after promises given before the election to maintain an A&E facility in Roscommon Hospital were broken by his own party’s minister of health just months after the election.
The other is one of the most high-profile of the new 2011 independents Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan who literally cut his political teeth locally in defending traditional turf cutting rights, and has gone on to successfully articulate the frustrations of citizens in rural Ireland with a Dublin elite that seems not to know them or care about them any more.
His successful candidature in the European Parliamentary elections – barely spending a penny in the process – is poll topping testimony to extent of the public’s mistrust and disquiet with established politics in Ireland.
Since they run politically from the ultra pro business Shane Ross, the academic Stephen Donnelly, the leftist Waterford TD John Halligan along with a small number of party groupings on the far left it is hard to predict just how this group might break with some kind of sustained economic recovery.
My own suspicion is that there will be no return to the ‘status quo ante’.
The problem they pose for a established parties and even rising parties like Sinn Fein is that none of them can be disrupted by being forced to take the reins of power and so are spared the risk of disappointing or disillusioning their various publics. The phrase “trust me I’m a party politician” is a long since passed its sell by date in Ireland, as elsewhere.
These guys are judged to have done good work by the degree on to which they are able to disrupt the ‘business as usual’ ethic of Irish politics and democracy. As such they give the lie to the rather lazy assumption that the Irish people are in someway subservient and complacent, just because there has been no rioting in the streets.
Their power lies in the generation of divergent and disrupting narratives. The best mainstream parties may hope for is to find a new narrative frame to allow people to converge around a party brand again, they might benefit from soaking up some of this independent vote.
But now, there is no visibly credible place their voters can go… And the largest single group of voters in the country, that is an indictment of just how far the rest have to go in understand why they continue to be trusted with power only with such a sizeable watchdog growling at their feet..