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Sunday 4 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: New Independents' party will squeeze on to a packed field

Stephen Donnelly, Independent deputy for Wicklow at Leinster House
Stephen Donnelly, Independent deputy for Wicklow at Leinster House

Does Ireland really need another left-wing political party? Maybe not, but it looks like we are going to get one.

The high-profile TDs Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall have begun talks about presenting a united front at the general election - sacrificing the independent status that makes up a huge part of their appeal in the first place.

On paper, the new outfit could be a formidable prospect. Donnelly, Murphy and Shortall are all strong media performers, while their liberal social policies might attract other talented independents such as ex-Fianna Fail Senator Averil Power.

Their ultimate dream, of course, is to hold the balance of power in a few months' time and get to decide whether or not Enda Kenny keeps his job.

Murphy is very much the woman of the moment, since her sensational Dail allegations about the former Anglo-Irish Bank have forced the Government to set up a full-scale inquiry. Shortall won huge respect in 2012 for resigning her junior health ministry and leaving the Labour Party over its broken promises.

Donnelly's background as a management consultant gives him huge financial expertise, although his mission is to prove that capitalists can also have a heart.

Sadly, all these individual strengths could also turn out to be collective weaknesses. Shortall, Murphy and Donnelly are widely admired precisely because they speak their minds and answer to no party whip.

If these three amigos join together and make all sorts of messy compromises along the way, they could end up in a fringe group much less than the sum of its parts.

For a start, who would be the leader? Murphy, Donnelly and Shortall all have healthy egos and might not particularly enjoy having to call someone else 'boss'.

ratings

The Green Party tried to do without a leader when they first came on the scene, but this idea looked like taking democracy too far and was dropped.

Also, a new party will not have quite the 'wow factor' that it might have had this time last year.

Lucinda Creighton got there first with Renua Ireland, although the initial hype has failed to prevent dismal poll ratings of just 1pc.

Shane Ross is ploughing ahead with his plans for an alliance of independent candidates, which many people in Leinster House see as a contradiction in terms.

In other words, the political pitch keeps getting more and more crowded. To stand out, any new team needs lots of strong candidates, lots of eye-catching policies and lots of ready cash.

Playing on the left wing is an even trickier task, since Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein and a host of others are trying to take up residence there.

In fairness to Donnelly, Shortall and Murphy, they are in a classic Catch-22 situation. Like all good politicians, they would love to get ministerial jobs and start making a real difference.

They cannot do that without signing up to something bigger than themselves.

But the basic problem remains. There is no 'i' in the word 'team'.

Independents are hugely popular these days, most old-school parties are not - so setting up a brand new club might be like rats leaving a perfectly seaworthy ship.

Being an independent TD is fun but sometimes lonely. It is no surprise that even lone wolves occasionally want to huddle together for warmth.

On the other hand, most independent deputies are that way for a reason - they simply function much better without having to consult half a dozen others before taking a decision.

Even so, Shortall, Donnelly and Murphy deserve credit for their ambition if nothing else. They are clearly not bog-standard parish-pump independents selling votes to any government prepared to throw a few quid at their constituencies.

They are public representatives with a national vision, one that should at least make the upcoming general election debate even more interesting.

Forming a new party could turn out to be either the greatest or the worst decision that Murphy, Donnelly and Shortall have ever made. Soon enough, the voters will get to decide which one it is.

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