Northern Ireland Independent Network seeking support for an independent representatives’ umbrella group

One of the interventions people frequently call for in Northern Ireland politics is the creation of new parties. It came up again last night as one of the first questions at Platform for Change’s event: “Why can’t the [middle ground] politicians sitting around the table unite and form a new party?”

I’m not so convinced that we’re ready for new parties. Even before NI21 launched and fell apart, I’ve longed for a surge of independents to flood the local government scene and shake it up.

The number of votes needed to win a council seat isn’t so great that an individual with an existing reputation couldn’t capitalise on it to become electable. With two or three years of effort, solid canvassing, surveying households, newsletters, getting hands on with local issues and taking advantage of the local paper as well as social media, getting 900–1200 votes is plausible … if still very hard work.

15 out of the 57 independent candidates in the May 2014 local government elections won seats. Eight reached the quota with their first preference votes. Another three reached the quota in subsequent rounds.

May 2014 local gov - reached quota under quota by party fixedIn fact, percentage-wise, fewer independents were successfully elected did so under-quota (26.7%) than any other party in the election (other than the PUP whose four successful candidates all reached the quota): Alliance (28.1%), DUP (29.2%), UUP (29.5%), SDLP (33.3%), UKIP (33.3%), Sinn Fein (35.2%), Green Party (50.0%), TUV (53.8%), NI21 (100%).

May 2014 local gov - reached quota under quota not elected by party fixedEven looking at candidates as a whole, the chance of an Independent candidate being elected in May 2014 was just 26.3% … well under the 56-76% rates for the SDLP, DUP, Sinn Fein and UUP. Alliance managed 39.0%. But Independents were still more likely to be elected than candidates from the TUV, PUP, UKIP NI21, never mind the plethora of smaller parties. So it isn’t impossible.

Independents have the advantage of being able to make alliances on an issue-by-issue basis. They don’t come with years of baggage that backs them into a corner on old issues. They have no awkward party whip that makes them vote against their conscience. [Ed – instead they have an electorate that can force them to swallow their feelings and vote to stay in office?!] But they can bring expertise to challenge service delivery and established council practices. Over time, independents might realise that they have much in common with existing parties – or form working coalitions with other independents – having the space and time to feel out whether longer-lasting alliances and common policy-based parties are worthwhile and sustainable.

There do seem to be big drawbacks to being an independent. The lack of support from fellow party members, a lack of organisation and back office to fall back, shared services like leaflet design and instant policies on everything. But those could be overcome.

While NI21’s entry onto the NI political stage was perhaps always going to be a difficult act, their poor performance and bad review will make others reluctant to form new parties. But there does seem to be a gap in the market for an independent-friendly administrative assistance service.

Between 11am and 2pm on Saturday 22, a group are meeting in the Skainos centre (239 Newtownards Road, Belfast, BT4 1AF) to discuss what sounds like an umbrella support group for independent candidates in future elections. The organiser of the Northern Ireland Independent Network explains:

Imagine a new political party or group in N.Ireland that puts candidates forward for election but not under their own banner, party lines or strict ideology but as independent representatives.

A political party or group is NOT obliged to submit their own candidates for any election. However individuals can register as an independent candidates, for elections, while being a member of a party or group. Furthermore a group or party that does not submit their own candidates for elections is not obliged to register as a political party or minor party and therefore not tied to the regulations that a registered party is.

One possibility would be that candidates could “get administrative and financial support from the party” in return for agreeing to “carry out their work as an independent representative and work towards a progressive, inclusive and non sectarian Northern Ireland”.

Their views on how it might be made to work are still fluid. But if you’re interested I’m sure they’d be glad to see you to hear your views.

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  • Is there funding for that?

  • Karen Smyth

    I’ve tried a number of times to support independent members of NILGA to form a grouping, similar to that in place in other UK LGAs. I haven’t had much success, but if an appetite has built for such a group, I would be happy to talk with interested people/participants.

  • steve white

    why does he call it a party then

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    If a Councillor gets 6 months or more of a prison sentence they lose their seat- one of those Independents elected this year has got a six month prison sentence after being caught painting slogans on a wall in Derry City-

    I think there could be a appeal but if not and that seat goes for a by- election it will be interesting to see if another Independent can one the seat or if it will be won by one of the Political party’s-

    Will the independent number stay the same or will it drop by one- time will tell-

  • will there be a by-election. Won’t there just be a nomination or whatever.

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    If every Councillor agrees on the new nominee then there won’t be a by – election and the new person will be co-opted unto the new council- but because who the Councillor is who got the six months ( at the moment ) then I can’t see that a co- option is possible-

    All it takes is one Councillor to not agree to cause a by- election-

  • Croiteir

    Just another unionist group of wannabees

  • chrisjones2

    You seem to have a problem with Prods? Care to explain?

  • MattPollPicker

    It’s not a party, it won’t be structured as a party and won’t register as a party.

  • MattPollPicker

    I would be happy to see you there on Saturday if you can come.
    You would be most welcome! 🙂

  • MattPollPicker

    Thank you Adam. This was a very insightful post and it proves the need for more Inde Candidates. It can only give better choice and better representation at both local and Assembly levels. Why not strive for better representation than put up with poor governance.

  • MattPollPicker

    I think you miss the idea of what an Independent is, my freind, unless you can enlighten us all?

  • MattPollPicker

    Not that we know of but not to say there isn’t. This is something we will explore after this meeting.

  • steve white

    “imagine a new political party”

  • mjh

    It’s actually enormously difficult for an independent to be elected.

    Of the 15 Independents returned in May only 4 of them were standing for election for the first time. One of those was Gary Donnelly who although described as an Independent had well known political links to a republican dissident movement, and therefore enjoyed many of the electoral benefits of standing for a party. Another was Albert Alan Chambers, who succeeded the long-time Independent/Independent Unionist Councillor Alan Chambers, and thus benefited from “brand recognition” similar to that conferred by a party.

    Of the 11 who had stood for election before, 6 were sitting councillors who had previously been elected for a political party before becoming Independent. (4 Sinn Fein, 1 DUP and 1 Green) A seventh had stood unsuccessfully as IRSP. An eight was sitting Independent Councillor James Henry, who had succeeded Samuel Henry – an Independent Councillor who had previously been elected as an Official Unionist.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    I’m not convinced that local councils dominated by independents would be more accountable or transparent. Rather the reverse; at least with political parties, policy formulation takes place in the open to an extent, rather than happening in ad-hoc huddles of non-party representatives on the night of the meeting, with the public finding out only the next day.

    And I don’t know why you think independent candidates are any more likely to bring expertise to local politics. In my own experience, political parties are much better at taking expertise into account in candidate selection than voters are at the ballot box.

    Of course independents have a role, preventing complacency among the parties and keeping them on their toes, and perhaps an organised club of the kind proposed here could help them do their job better. But as mjh points out, most independents have come from political party backgrounds, and some will return to parties in due course. The solution is not more independents; it is better parties.

  • Barneyt

    Do we naturally assume that all independents are moderate in their thinking, and all occupy the same ground? This may be the case, but its possible to become independent from a party due to their extremes or as a result of the party you leave, not being extreme enough.

    Does anyone start their career as an independent these days?

    We are in danger of a knee jerk reaction. Whilst I understand that the Irish see the British parties as extreme and the British parties regard the Irish parties in the same light, there is not a great deal of extremism associated with their respective wants. They just counter each other..and the difference in the wants represents the extreme.

    The problem here is not “the want”. Its caused by those that present the arguments are the roles these actors and their parties have played in NI. The DUP will for years to come remind the Irish of oppression and hate and basic religious bigotry and prejudice. SF will forever and a day be regarded by the British as a set of murderers or at least apologists for the same.

    Given than the quest for reunification is as valid as the desire for NI to remain part of the UK (forgetting how it formed), would it be acceptable for a new player to emerge but for them to reflect existing demands, from either the left or right? A new party without the baggage

    The problem is, you cannot take such a side without being affected in some way by the opposing goals the main parties and respective communities have over here. A new party and its members is likely to emerge from one camp or another, and I have not see anyone that can genuinely sit across the divide. Alliance, Workers Party etc… all at some point accept NI and NI as part of the UK…meaning they are effectively unionist and therefore compromised. The latter party hid behind social need and the unrealistic expectation that all of the working class over here can be united first. The missed an opportunity to retain their main republican goals but to pursue it through peaceful means, 30 years ahead of everyone else.

    The alternative is a new agenda, and that is difficult to achieve. You run the risk of being everyone’s friends or being accused of being too detached from the issues here. A new party needs a new idea and they need to stick with that and hold strong.

    What are the new ideas? A party for Irish Economic and Infrastructural Union?

  • Gaygael

    Alan – people Before Profir were elected above quota in Blackmountain. Gerry Carroll was 52 votes away at first count.

  • Of course you will.

  • Tacapall

    People before profit is just the Workers party re-branded, active as a political party both here and in the 26 counties since 2005.

  • Barneyt

    Interesting. Did the whole party re-brand or did this involve a split 🙂

  • Karen Smyth

    Matt I would love to but I’ll be working elsewhere on Saturday. I hope it goes well for you – please let me know how you get on.

  • Karen Smyth

    And it might be worth your while eventually, to have a word with these guys. http://www.local.gov.uk/web/lgaindependent/home

  • Tacapall

    I wouldn’t know Barney sure politics is just one big con to me, maybe they split from Democratic left or maybe they all use the same election workers.

  • mac tire

    You think Catholics can’t be Unionist? Care to explain?

  • Thanks for noticing. Have fixed missing their missing data (and it pointed to a hole for a couple of others). Graphs redrawn and percentages update – but doesn’t change overall argument.

  • I agree to an extent. Independents with a personal following – built up through service as councillor under a party banner – can continue to attract votes. But There are any number of well known and trusted people in towns and villages who could build on an existing profile …

  • Some – and only some – of the candidates put forward by larger parties at May’s election were very poor, even in Belfast. Party members at counts privately expressed relief when some didn’t make it through and questioned the calling to public service beyond the glamour of being a councillor. So while some expertise is sought and found, getting sufficient volunteers to run under a party banner is difficult.

    While we wait or better (reformed or new) parties, I’d argue that an injection of independents – would improve politics from the inside and by preventing
    complacency might accelerate the reform.

  • Brian Walker

    It would surely be
    better to work out what a new party might stand for first. That means more than
    dreaming up ideas. It means diagnosing ills and recommending cures which you
    can convince people they need and want. Psephology on this basis is only a
    parlour game. Nicholas is also surely right. Moreover talk of independents is based on Rep experience, a phenomenon which is largely about spreading the impact of serious disenchantment with the main parties aggravated by the particular decimation of Fianna Fail. NI politics by contrast has experienced some consolidation of the main parties without decimating the “centre. ” This suggests the better route would be for the divided centre to find ways of coalescing rather than further fragment.

  • Matt Beeching

    Irrespective of where they were before they got elected. It is always difficult to get elected as a first time candidate regardless if you are standing with a party or as an independent. Alan here is not suggesting it is easy, it is difficult, but not impossible. A group like this will aim to address the issues that independents have that make it more difficult.

    I also think that a group like this could raise the chances of getting elected form the 26% we see here to as good as some of the other main parties, or at least as good as Alliance. Eventually.

    Look this group will not solve and does not claim to solve all of the problems that this country has, but it WILL create more balance within local council and the Assembly chamber on any many issues that get decided on (or not decided on in our case). It will also give more choice to the electorate and also, I think, better representation instead of bad governance.

  • Matt Beeching

    I don’t think that local councils being dominated by independents is necessarily a good thing either, however, in my experience, independents are and do tend to be more accountable, they have to be. Party councillors get away with many things because they have the power, often from a large party, that can spin and deflect poor decision making into something that either benefits them or covers over the real truth. Independents have no such power or can create no such spin.

    I would also take issue with your point that political parties can create policy in the open, I see little of that in any of the party councillors I have seen, there are often secret discussions and pacts being made as much as any councillor, independent or otherwise.

    I also take great issue indeed with your insinuation that the electorate are less able to determine of a candidate is less or more bale to do his or her job than a party can. By simply stating statiscally I could almost guarantee you there are far more poor councillors that take their seats than independents. Furthermore I think you grossly underestimate the electorate as well as making them appear incapable of selecting somebody to repreent them.

    Lastly Independents tend to listen to their consciences, and more importantly their constituents far more effectively than a party member does or can as they are not under any influence of 2 or 3 lines whips or party policy.

  • Matt Beeching

    or goup

  • Matt Beeching

    Wouldn’t you?

  • steve white

    if you didn’t want another political party you would have just said group or network but you didn’t the first thing you said was political party

  • The representatives of the divided centre on the Platform for Change made it very obvious that they had no notion or driver to consolidate. So a Plan B I needed …

  • sean treacy

    People before profit are certainly NOT the workers party rebranded.PBP would be aligned to the SWP which had massive policy differences with the Stalinist WP not least in relation to the North

  • Croiteir

    No to both as the question is a reflection of your mentality

  • Croiteir

    If that is to me then I refer you to the previous

  • Croiteir

    Why do I miss it? Can you not be an independent unionist?

  • mac tire

    Not aimed at you at all Croiteir. If anything, it’s a defence.

  • Ian James Parsley

    I’ve met two people who were at that disappointing PfC event and they both effectively emphasised Brian‘s point.

    It’s hopeless offering an alternative before you have diagnosed the problem.

    For example, NI21 majored on opposition. When I raised with them the fact that their policy was identical to the Alliance Party’s but could not be implemented because Nationalists would not even enter into negotiations on the subject, they just ignored that diagnosis of the problem (one which made their solution impossible in practice to implement) and went on regardless. They even subsequently had the cheek, when the Alliance Party re-stated its policy after the election, to accuse the Alliance Party of “not supporting” them!!

    Politics – deriving from the Greek “balance of powers” is difficult. The problem for the so-called “Middle Ground” is fundamentally not that it has too few groupings and needs yet another one, but that it has too many groupings each incapable of diagnosing the problem and proposing practical solutions.

  • Gaygael

    Oh attacking PBP? They give you a bit of a shock. Gerry and alternatives in working class CNR communities are on the rise.

  • Matt Beeching

    You can argue semantics all you like. It isn’t nor is it going to be a political party.
    At the time when that was written it was an expression of an idea or a thought, as political parties do exist that just put forward Independents for election. The idea has evolved and the result is that it won’t be a political party.
    I trust this clarifies the position of this group?

  • Matt Beeching

    Sorry @sean treacy I am not sure I follow you as I don’t think I had said at anytime that PBP are workers party rebranded.