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Analysis

Ireland elected over 180 Independents: we analysed who they are and what it means

The Journal has built a picture of what really happened on 7 June.

IT WAS ONE of the talking points of these elections even before polling stations opened their doors last Friday: the prominence and popularity of Independent candidates.

Opinion polls in the run-up to the local and European votes suggested a surge in support among the electorate for non-aligned politicians and smaller parties, apparently at the expense of Sinn Féin, the main party of Opposition.

With all counts now concluded, we can build a picture of what really happened.

Have Independents gobbled up the available anti-government vote, as claimed at the weekend by a clearly disappointed Mary Lou McDonald as a partial explanation for her party’s poor showing? 

To what extent has immigration been a factor in the Independent vote? Opinion polls in the past month have indicated that voters who are more likely to vote for a candidate who expressed concern over immigration were also more likely to plump for Independents, and that those supporting Independent candidates favour more restrictive immigration policies

What are the elected Independents’ true political colours – left, right or shades in between?

How many of them are drawing on voter disaffection with establishment politics and parties, and how many are already part of the established order in their locality, quietly tipping along at the quotidian business of a local authority rep?

We’ve put together the data and drilled down to find out – who are Ireland’s Independents?

How good an election did Independents have?

Independents are better supported than than a straight comparison of their final tally of 186 local authority seats – almost 20% of the total – with the big parties would suggest. This is clear if we look at first preference votes.

Fianna Fáil may have remained the biggest party of local government, taking 248 seats, narrowly ahead of Fine Gael with 245, but the 20.9% first-preference vote tally for Independents was only a couple of points behind Fianna Fáil’s 22.9% and Fine Gael’s 23%.

Standing alone in their local electoral areas rather than with running mates obviously limits Independents from translating vote share into additional seats in the way parties can.

Independents’ high share of the overall vote can also be interpreted as a testament to the popularity of individual councillors and first-time candidates in their areas.

Our data shows well over a third of elected Independents romped home on the first count, meaning they were either the poll topper in their area or very close behind.

Several Independents were comfortably re-elected without using political posters, including Marie Casserly on the third count in Sligo-Drumcliffe, Leitrim GAA chairman Enda Stenson on the fourth count in Carrick-on-Shannon, and third-time poll topper Francis Timmons, re-elected on the first count in Clondalkin, South Dublin.

Independents’ popularity may also reflect the obvious benefit of being an incumbent with a track record of local work to point to when it’s time to go knocking on doors: three quarters of Independents returned in this election were sitting councillors. 

Strong first count results may have given the initial impression, when ballot boxes first opened at the weekend, that Independents had had a particularly good election – but now that the dust has settled on the counts, it’s clearer that not that much has changed.

Continuity

“I heard a lot about this being an election of volatility, but compared with other local elections, it’s been one of stability,” says Liam Weeks, a lecturer in UCC’s department of government who has written extensively on Independents in Irish politics.

He notes that Independents’ share of first preference votes is very similar to the 2019 (19.6%) and 2014 local elections. 

Weeks explains that after a strong general election in 2002, Independents’ star really began to rise during the recession era starting with the 2009 local elections, before which they would only have received around one in 10 first preferences.

Indeed, many Independent councillors re-elected in recent days have been in situ for three election cycles now, and some for even longer.

Going back even further, Weeks notes that Independents have always featured in the politics of independent Ireland; like the Labour Party, Independents pre-date both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.  In the early days of the Free State, several would have been unionists. Independents have long been positioned in Ireland as a means for voters to opt out of voting for the main political parties in local elections. 

So while Mary Lou McDonald may have hoped Sinn Féin could take on this role as the electorate’s anti-government option, Weeks believes it was always likely to be something of a long shot, particularly in rural areas.

“There was never really a farmer vote there for Sinn Féin, going back to their socialist roots. And Fianna Fáil is a strong rural party,” he added.

There are other continuities when it comes to Independents in this election too.

One is Irish local politics’ significant gender imbalance: just 16% of Independents elected were women, lower than the 26% share for women across all council seats (albeit the national figure was unchanged from the number of outgoing female councillors).

And while this local election saw the largest number ever of people from ethnic minority or immigrant background elected, none of them were Independents.

All politics is local – especially for Independents

It’s tempting to interpret a vote for Independents as having a particular meaning in the context of current politics, but Weeks cautions against such recency bias in parsing the election results. It’s important instead to understand how the structure of Irish elections affects how we vote.

“When you look at election data, Irish people do not feel as attached to parties as European people do,” Weeks explains.

“In [continental] Europe, people don’t think about the candidate, because most of Europe has a party list system, so the mentality is different.

All elections in Ireland are local. We have constituency-based, candidate-based elections.

“The [voters'] number one priority, even in general elections, is picking a candidate to look after a constituency.”

Independents are uniquely placed to tap into that localism. Flick through election leaflets, and it’s clear how many use their Independent status to prove that their first loyalty is to the locality.

Brendan Fay, a second-term Independent elected on the first count in Belturbet, Co Cavan, said on his leaflet: “I work for PEOPLE not PARTIES.”

The Wexford Independent Alliance, of whom five councillors were elected, has also plumped for the slogan: “Representing people – not parties.”

Joe Bonner, who topped the poll in Ashbourne, Co Meath, also hit the caps lock key to make this point in his election leaflet, telling voters: “I always put the interest of the community first. AS A TRUE INDEPENDENT I AM NOT UNDER THE CONTROL OF A POLITICAL PARTY WHIP.”

PastedImage-3335 Joe Bonner election literature IrishElectionLiterature.com IrishElectionLiterature.com

Another refrain among Independents is to not make election promises – apparently the dubious preserve of parties – other than to work for local people.

Paudie Dineen, re-elected to the south central area of Cork City, said on his leaflet in a section headlined PROMISES (JUST THE ONE): “I will not be making any promises that I know that I may not be able to keep. Therefore the only promise that I can make is to promise that I will do my very best to resolve any concerns that you may raise with me.”

In Carrigaline, Co Cork, 24-year-old Ben Dalton-Sullivan was re-elected on the first count, having been first elected in 2019 at the age of just 19 on a platform of working for the local community. In 2022 he told local news website Cork Beo he “made no promises” but rather “just told people I’d do all I can”.

Weeks notes that even Ireland’s biggest political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, do not have “party” in their name and historically characterised themselves as movements or groups.

There’s something in the Irish political culture that likes a bit of distance from party, that doesn’t like being told up to do: ‘we’ll make up our own mind’.

“The Independents push that populist line to say, ‘we are not there to divide, we’re for the people’.”

He adds that there’s nothing more telling about the power of the concept of independence in Irish politics than the fact that non-aligned candidates are not allowed to use it on their ballot papers. Rather, under the Electoral Act, they must call themselves “non-party”. 

“It’s the parties who decided that, in the 1960s,” Weeks notes.

How independent are Ireland’s Independents?

Some are more independent than others.

The strength of the Independent brand in Irish politics, and the fiefdoms carved out by Independents at all levels, has seen many coalesce while either remaining nominally non-aligned or at least retaining independent branding. 

There are now three political parties registered with the Electoral Commission with the magic word in their name.

There’s outgoing leftwing MEP Clare Daly’s Independents 4 Change, which returned a sitting councillor on her home turf in Swords, Co Dublin. Daly lost her European seat.

There’s the Kerry Independent Alliance, whose John O’Donoghue retained his seat in Killarney, and which is not to be confused with that other (non-party) alliance of Kerry Independents, the Healy-Rae dynasty. Jackie, son of TD Michael, and Johnnie and Maura, children of Michael’s brother and fellow TD Danny, all romped home, while publican Liam ‘Speedy’ Nolan was elected for the first time time, with official Healy-Rae endorsement.

PastedImage-77594 Liam 'Speedy' Nolan election literature IrishElectionLiterature.com IrishElectionLiterature.com

Finally, and most successfully, there’s the new Independent Ireland party, which has now gained 23 councillors (although half of these were incumbents who joined the group) and an MEP, former RTÉ journalist Ciaran Mulooley, on top of its three TDs. The party’s strong first local election saw it get four candidates onto Cork County Council, the second largest local authority in the country, including party leader Michael Collins’ brothers John and Danny.

Apart from some independent-washing at party level, there are multiple clusters of co-operating Independent councillors across the country, often coalesced around a more prominent local politician. About 20% of Independents elected this week are in such groupings, or otherwise linked in with other Independents, including through having been co-opted to another’s seat.

In Galway, Tomás Grealish, brother of Progressive Democrat-turned-Independent TD Noel, was elected on the first count, running with the endorsement of Progressive Democrat-turned-Independent councillor Jimmy Cuddy on Cuddy’s retirement.

In Tipperary, Michael Lowry has a team of five councillors, including his son Micheál. Like Galway’s Grealish machine, Lowry has succession-planned for retirements among his acolytes, with Team Lowry first-time candidate Pamela Quirke O’Mary elected on the first count for outgoing John ‘Rocky’ McGrath.

For many Independents, it’s a family affair, with several elected after first being co-opted onto a parent’s, partner’s or other family member’s seat. In Waterford City East, David Daniels was elected on the first count, after being co-opted to his father’s seat last year.

In Meath, three “Team Keogan” candidates were elected (the eponymous Keogan being Independent Senator Sharon), including Geraldine Keogan, who was co-opted to her sister’s seat in 2020.

Wexford Independent TD Verona Murphy ran 12 candidates in her Wexford Independent Alliance, five of whom were elected, including Paddy Kavanagh, who took a seat from a sitting Fianna Fáil councillor in Kilmuckridge.

Speaking on RTÉ earlier this week, Murphy said that Independents will need to align if they are to make headway against parties in the next general election. 

“We can align the same way as a party – we just don’t need a whip,” Murphy said.

Some Independents are strongly networked with other Independents across the country, like Máirín McGrath, daughter of TD Mattie, who topped the poll in her Cahir electoral area with a big surplus.

Another Independent TD from Mattie’s Dáil “rural group”, Carol Nolan of Laois-Offaly, spoke at Máirín’s election rally last month, while newly elected Independent MEP for Ireland South and current Clare TD Michael McNamara has chosen her as his substitute if he vacates his seat (there are no by-elections for Europe).

In Louth, three Independent councillors went forward for election as a group, pledging to continue to work together for the next five years. 

Independent or not, councillors must cooperate with others in the council chamber, particularly if they want to form part of a ruling group.

Just as the Dáil’s 160 TDs split into a government and an opposition, councils are run by ruling groups. Negotiations to form these are currently underway nationwide.

In Longford, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael taking eight seats each, two Independents (both elected on the first count) were kingmakers and have already done a deal with the latter party to form a ruling group, Shannonside FM reports.

Party colours

The concept of the political “gene pool” is a peculiarly Irish one. The reason we have a term for it is that it happens so often – many Independent politicians started life in political parties. 

At least 89 Independent councillors – almost half of those elected – were previously members of political parties.

Their reasons for leaving are varied. Some were in parties that are now defunct, such as the Progressive Democrats. Some had policy differences with their former parties, while many left having failed to win a party nomination.

In Co Cork, Alan Coleman left Fianna Fáil in 2015 while serving as Mayor, after being passed over for a general election ticket after 24 years as a councillor.

He has served another nine years as a councillor since then and has another five to come, after topping the poll in Bandon-Kinsale. Coleman has run unsuccessfully for the Dáil as an Independent twice.

In Waterford, first-time candidate Declan Barry was elected on the first count after defecting from Fianna Fáil when he did not receive a nomination – likely costing the party its council seat in his area.

Some Independent councillors left their former parties following disciplinary issues. 

One such councillor, former Sinn Féin member Paddy Holohan, topped the poll in Tallaght Central and also scraped through in neighbouring Tallaght South, meaning he will be able to co-opt someone onto the council to sit alongside him.

Holohan, a former mixed martial arts fighter, left Sinn Féin in 2021 after being suspended in 2020 over racist and misogynist remarks he made on podcasts. He had said that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was “separated from society” because of his Indian heritage (Varadkar was born and raised in Dublin) and that  “loads” of underage girls were having sex with men in order to blackmail them.

Two Wicklow councillors expelled by Sinn Féin in 2017, Gerry O’Neill and John Snell, topped the polls in their areas.

In terms of whether Independents tend to lean left or right, Weeks doesn’t believe it’s a particularly useful typology for Irish politics. He says Independents tend to reflect the politics of their community – which could often be characterised as centre-right in rural areas, while in urban areas left leaning Independents rooted in community activism can be found.

Brendan Flynn, head of Political Science at Galway University told The Journal‘s Explainer podcast this week that the “mixed bag” of Independents elected include rural Independents advocating for a rural agenda, ex-party members-turned-Independents, and “purely Independent” people who often stand on the basis of a particular issue.

Immigration and Independents

Claims and counter-claims have been made in relation to how these local election results can be interpreted in relation to immigration.

While some point to the almost universal failure of far-right party candidates to break through, others suggest that the much larger vote for Independents and smaller parties largely went to candidates critical of current immigration policy.

In reality, with no exit poll, data is limited.

Based on The Journal’s analysis, it is possible to say that about a third of elected Independents have expressed some concern, or acknowledged concern in their community, about immigration policy, although the spectrum of views here is wide, and weighted to the more moderate end of things. The type of concerns spoken of tend to skew local.

However, a third is also likely to be a conservative estimate, not least because we don’t know what candidates have been saying on doorsteps.

Some of those we didn’t count, based on available records, in this cohort are part of wider political teams associated with local protests against asylum seeker accommodation and criticism of government immigration policy but have not said anything publicly themselves that we could find. 

These include the team of Tipperary TD Michael Lowry, for example, or the Wexford Independent Alliance assembled by Verona Murphy, who was expelled from Fine Gael over remarks on immigration and is currently opposing the development of an accommodation centre for international protection applicants in Rosslare. 

(Although, as Independents not subject to a party whip, councillors working with TDs critical of immigration policy may hold and act on different views.)

The spectrum of views identified by our survey runs from concern simply at lack of communication from central government (this is widespread among councillors across the country); through to concern at lack of services in some areas, many of them isolated or deprived, to which asylum seekers or refugees are being moved; to the handful of elected candidates who campaigned on a full-blown far right anti-immigration platform.

The three far-right Independent candidates who have gained seats are Tom McConnell in Newbridge, Co Kildare, and Malachy Steenson and Gavin Pepper to Dublin City Council.

Flynn, of Galway University, said the breakthrough electoral success of far right candidates is probably the “big news” in this election, when it comes to Independents.

Among elected council candidates who have been vocal on this topic, some have attended or spoken at protests or meetings in their areas, some have raised concerns over the use of local hotels or other buildings, and tabled or spoken in favour of motions that their council should call on central government to engage more with communities in their area on the issue.

Speaking out on immigration seems to be more prevalent in counties where protests have taken place against accommodation: Kerry, Mayo and Wicklow (where there have been protests in Crooksling and Newtownmountkennedy), for example.

Some local developments have increased the prominence of some men (they are all men) who have now been elected for the first time.

These include Micheál Frain, chair of the Roscommon Leader Partnership, who has highlighted the lack of promised government investment in services in Ballaghadereen since the town took in many asylum seekers from Syria in 2018. He raised concerns earlier this year over plans for modular homes for Ukrainians in the economically depressed town. 

Liam Browne, who led local opposition to plans to house international protection applicants in Cashel late last year, has also been elected as a first-time candidate, topping the poll.

Peter O’Donoghue was elected as a first-time candidate in Fermoy after organising a meeting about international protection applicants being housed in a B&B building in the Cork town. He has also spoken against voting rights for recent immigrants. Previously, he was an anti-lockdown protester and has also given out about non-binary Eurovision singer Bambie Thug.

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Independent status may allow councillors to go further in criticising immigration policies. This is certainly the case made by Drogheda councillor Kevin Callan, who argued in the run-up to this election that he believed being Independent had allowed him to take a “logical” position on local issues such as the local D Hotel being earmarked to house Ukrainian refugees.

Independents “vote for what makes sense and do not defend the indefensible like the decision to close the D Hotel”, Callan said in a pre-election statement reported by Drogheda Life.

However, opposition to or concern about immigration policy is by no means exclusive to Independents. Meetings across the country in relation to accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees have been attended by party councillors.

While an Independent councillor, Michael Kilcoyne, proposed the motion earlier this year that Mayo County Council should stop cooperating with the Department of Integration over the housing of international protection applicants and refugees, it was unanimously supported by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael members.

At national level, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have all recently hardened their positions on immigration. Weeks notes that if many candidates are taking the same stance on an issue, it can’t really decide an election – and adds that the importance of individual current issues to voters is often overstated as a motivating factor.

Nevertheless, it’s no surprise that Independents have reflected back the concerns they have heard from their communities: that’s what Independents do.  

It’s worth noting that Independents are a heterogeneous group, and several have challenged narratives around immigration in their area.  

Alan Edge, outgoing chair of South Dublin County Council, spearheaded an initiative to counter myths about immigration, delivering a “Fact vs Fiction info sheet” to 70,000 homes across the council area. 

What next? 

What next for Independents? While some are happy to tip along serving their local area term after term, others will want a tilt at the Dáil. 

“What I would say is that the key to winning a Dáil seat is having a council seat,” Weeks said.  

With Independents in the Dáil increasingly working together in recent years and even, during the last government, making it as far as the cabinet table, there’s a lot to play for. 

And with the latest election results making it clear that Independents are viewed by many voters as the favoured anti-government protest vote, it’s possible they can go from strength to strength.

With reporting by Orla Ryan and Mairéad Maguire

Clarification: The Journal has updated this article to include a more specific representation of Peter O’Donoghue’s views. We are also happy to clarify his communications on social media have included requests for local people to be respectful of immigrants being welcomed to his area. 

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