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Opinion: The rise of the independents… what does it mean for policy-making?

The number of floating voters has increased amid weakening attachment to political parties – could the affect coherent decision-making in the Dáil?

Rory Costello

ONE OF THE biggest stories of the local elections has been the success of independent candidates. At the time of writing, independents were on track to take a record share of the vote, up considerably on the 16% share they received in 2009. This reflects an ongoing trend in Irish politics since the late 1990s across all elections. While independents tend to do particularly well in local elections, their share of the vote in general elections has also been on a sharp rise. In 2011 they won 12% of first preference votes, and this now looks likely to increase again next time out. The current support levels for independents is not only new in the Irish context, it is almost unique when compared to other western democracies.

What are we to make of the rise of independents? The cause is clear enough: weakening attachment to political parties among voters. Traditionally, strong party identification existed within families and was passed down through the generations. This pattern has been on the wane for some time, and the collapse of the Fianna Fáil vote in 2011 sped up this process considerably.

Not clearly distinguishable along ideological lines

This is compounded by the lack of strong ideological orientations among Irish voters. Most voters in other western European countries clearly identify themselves as being either on the left or the right, so even if they are not attached to a particular political party, they feel closer to some than others. In contrast, many Irish voters do not think of themselves in these terms. Indeed, the political parties themselves are not clearly distinguishable along ideological lines. Therefore, when voters cease to identify with a party such as Fianna Fáil, they are not naturally drawn to an alternative on the same side of the ideological spectrum.

All of this has meant that the number of floating voters has increased enormously in recent years. In the 2011 Irish National Election Study, only 20% of respondents thought of themselves as close to a political party. The number is probably even lower now.
The breakdown of party identification makes elections much less predictable. Rather than voting for the same party every time, voters are now shopping around. Many of those who voted for Fine Gael or (especially) Labour for the first time in 2011 have already abandoned them. Sinn Féin is currently riding high, but this support is also likely to be fickle. If they to enter government at some point in the future, they are sure to disappoint many of their fair-weather supporters.

What are the consequences?

While it is easy enough to explain the rise of independents, it is less clear what the consequences will be for Irish politics should this trend continue. It is quite possible that local government would function just as well without political parties. The main role of local councillors is to represent their constituents in the local authority; the unelected city or county manager performs the main executive functions. Furthermore, the number of councillors is relatively small on each local authority, so political parties are not essential to structure decision-making.

In contrast, political parties have a number of very important functions at the national level. General elections are primarily a way for the public to shape which government will form. If parties continue to decline, voters will not be presented with credible alternative governments at election time. Furthermore, decision-making within the Dáil in the absence of cohesive political parties could be chaotic. While independent TDs have performed an important role in scrutinising the government and holding it to account, it is difficult to see how coherent policy-making would be possible in a Dáil consisting mainly of independents.

It is possible that the rise of independents is just a temporary phenomenon. Perhaps in time some independents will coalesce around a new political party in an effort to increase their leverage. However, given the distaste of the Irish electorate for party politics, it seems more likely that they will be an increasingly important part of the Irish political landscape into the future.

Rory Costello is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick, specialising in EU politics and political representation.

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