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Column: How to get things done in the Dáil – 8 tips for independent TDs

Most independent TDs just fade from view after a term or two. They should follow these examples from Tony Gregory, writes his biographer Robbie Gilligan.

Robbie Gilligan

Most independent TDs simply fade from view after a term or two – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here Tony Gregory’s biographer Robbie Gilligan argues that the former Dublin Central TD, who died three years ago in January,  provides lessons that today’s crop of independents would do well to follow.

VOTING FOR INDEPENDENT TDs may seem an attractive option for those disillusioned with conventional party politics. Independent TDs may bring, it is hoped, a freshness of action and thought that seems missing in the jaded world of party politics. Freed of the dead hand of the party whip, so the thinking goes, we will get more original ideas and more individual initiative.

Yet the evidence of history would temper such hopes. Most independent TDs don’t last the pace; most independents fade from view, having struggled to cope alone with the demands of the political institutions, and without the support and protection of the dreaded party whip.

So are there examples where aspiring independent TDs might look for inspiration and guidance?

Tony Gregory served in Dáil Eireann for over twenty seven years , elected in eight consecutive general elections. He was second only to the legendary Alfie Byrne in all time electoral performance by independent TDs. Tony is the stand-out high achiever of independent candidates of the modern era. So what was the secret of his success?

  1. Stick to your guns: Tony had clear principles, and he stood by these through thick and thin. He was the uncompromising voice of justice for the underdog. He was most concerned with his immediate turf in the Dublin north inner city, but he was not narrowly parochial. He had a clear focus on certain key issues – education, housing, unemployment and as conditions changed over the years, he added drugs, crime and policing.
  2. Don’t go it alone: He did fight wider causes beyond his constituency, while being careful not to dissipate his energy or his message. He was open to alliances with fellow spirits where there was a real opportunity to add value to the common effort.
  3. Do your homework: Tony was very well organised and had a great attention to detail. He was always well prepared. He did his homework for speeches or media interviews. He had a position paper to open his negotiations on what became the Gregory Deal for investment in Dublin’s neglected north inner city with Charles Haughey. These negotiations arose when the February 1982 election result fell his way and made Tony potential kingmaker in the election of the government when the newly elected Dáil would meet for the first time. He promised Charles Haughey his vote in return for a major public investment programme in social issues in the inner city and beyond.
  4. Remember the little things: More routinely, Tony had a well oiled machine for each election. His canvassers readily recall Tony coaching them in how to drop his election leaflet through letter boxes so that they would land face up.
  5. Use the media – but don’t be used: In dealing with the media, Tony was ever alert to opportunities to promote his political message – and profile. Whether in front of a microphone, with pen in hand or at a computer key board, Tony could articulate his position clearly and economically. He used the device of writing columns or articles in a diverse range of outlets as a way of getting his message across on his terms.
  6. Don’t forget the people behind you: Tony gathered around him a loyal band of activists, and a smaller circle of advisers. His advisers were very able and brought a lot of local knowledge and policy expertise. But in the end he had confidence in his own instincts and judgement – and he was frequently vindicated if election results are any measure.
  7. Get your hands dirty: He was not afraid of hard work and didn’t ask people to do things he wouldn’t do himself. A feature of every election campaign was Tony himself postering local lampposts, and – ever competitive – ensuring that his were placed highest to reduce interference from mean-minded competitors.
  8. Don’t be afraid of power: The physical courage of daredevil postering was matched by the moral courage of taking on powerful opponents, whether senior management in Dublin city council, the management of the gardaí or the criminal fraternity. Convinced of the causes he was supporting and his own analysis, Tony was fearless in speaking his mind. This honesty and directness became his hallmark and won him respect and affection across the political spectrum. But he had to have patience. It often took a long time for ideas to be acted upon and for him to receive any credit.

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Tony may have died young and not having achieved ministerial office. But it is clear that he has left a powerful political legacy. One man or woman can make a big difference in politics if they are clear where they stand and work ceaselessly to get their point across. A clear message consistently pushed becomes very powerful.

Through Tony’s efforts Dublin’s inner city is no longer the forgotten ghetto, the political backwater it was before Tony burst on the national political scene. Searching for an independent candidate? Find someone like Tony – with political conviction, ability and a capacity for hard work.

Robbie Gilligan’s new biography of Tony Gregory, Tony Gregory, is published by The O’Brien Press, price €19.99.

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