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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Independents' rise may signal chaos for our political system

Independent TDs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly
Independent TDs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly

Enda Kenny should give up any idea of holding a general election in 2015. The way Fine Gael's popularity is slumping, in fact, the Taoiseach probably wishes he could postpone the vote until 2017 or beyond.

It seems that many Irish voters are increasingly determined to dump the traditional parties and embrace independents instead - a development that could result in chaos whenever we finally do go to the polls.

According to a new Red C survey, the independents have risen to a record high of 31pc (up four). That gives them almost as much support as the two Coalition parties put together, with Fine Gael on 25pc (down three) and Labour at 8pc (up one).

Normally a Government drop would translate into gains for the official opposition, but instead Fianna Fail are going backwards too (18pc, down two) and Sinn Fein look like a team that has peaked too soon (18pc, unchanged).

Giants

If those figures are repeated on election day, then Irish politics will become a whole new ball game. Even the once mighty civil war giants of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael would need a small army of independent TDs in order to secure a Dail majority.

Whatever sort of coalition was cobbled together, the chances are we would soon be sent back to our polling stations and asked to vote again.

True, the independents' rating includes smaller parties such as the Greens (2pc), Lucinda Creighton's Renua (1pc) and the three-headed Social Democrats (2pc). For now, however, it seems safe to assume that none of these groups is setting the country on fire.

Instead, voters are flocking to genuine lone wolves, the sort of mavericks that Dublin South TD Shane Ross is trying to forge into some kind of alliance.

In other words, Enda Kenny's re-election strategy is not exactly going to plan. Fine Gael strategists always assumed that if the national finances had recovered by 2015, they and Labour would cruise to a second term.

To their horror, this iron law of politics has been turned upside down. We now have the fastest-growing economy in Europe and yet the Government's popularity is stuck in recession.

Why is this happening? One clue was on show at the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry last week, where Enda Kenny trotted out his usual line of: "Fianna Fail destroyed the country, I saved it."

When the Taoiseach was challenged to explain how Fine Gael's economic policies before the crash were any different, however, he resorted to the kind of meaningless waffle that even his own supporters must have found embarrassing.

Of course, most voters still do blame Fianna Fail for destroying the Celtic Tiger in such spectacular fashion. But many believe that Fine Gael or Labour would have made exactly the same mistakes and were just lucky to be in opposition at the time.

This is why so many of us are desperately seeking something new, even if it is hard to see how even the most talented independents could actually work in Government Buildings.

In a recent RTE documentary, the tax-dodging TD Mick Wallace said: "I'd love to be Minister for Justice...but you'd nearly have to sell your soul." That kind of pious attitude is some independents' biggest weakness.

If they keep talking about power as a grubby little thing beneath them, voters may eventually turn back to parties who are at least prepared to get their hands dirty.

So Fine Gael and Labour are not giving up just yet. They hope to get a boost over the summer, since governments tend to get more popular the less people see of them. Michael Noonan claims he will unveil a responsible budget next October, not a vote-buying exercise - but frankly most of us will believe that when we see it.

For now, the opinion polls continue to show that this Government is in deep, deep trouble. With barely eight months to go before an election must be called, it is also rapidly running out of time.

When Fianna Fail were humiliated at the 2011 general election, Enda Kenny gleefully hailed it as "a democratic revolution". In reality, it looks like an even bigger revolution may be still to come - and the Taoiseach will not enjoy this one half as much.

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