Loosely aligned Independents could have significant impact in next Dáil

Candidates disillusioned with the establishment are beginning to drift towards one another. Irish Times January 21 2010

THE ESTABLISHMENT of Nama in late 2009 focused minds and ultimately led to several meetings in a well-known solicitor’s office in Dublin city centre. The only item on the agenda was to explore the formation of a new Irish civil society organisation. A former Irish rugby international, a prominent businessman, a civil society activist and the journalist David McWilliams were among those who attended. Nothing came of it but it did bring like-minded people together.

The IMF-ECB bailout crystallised matters and some of those deeply angry at the direction of the Government’s economic policy began seriously to consider standing for election. Conversations about the possibility of an umbrella political movement intensified from early December last.

McWilliams’s Irish Independent article two weeks ago, “If I was Taoiseach . . . what I would do to save Ireland” with his 10 steps to economic recovery, served to focus attention on what such a movement would look like.

Similar views were expressed by Senator Shane Ross on last week’s Saturday Night Show on RTÉ, when he announced his Dáil candidature as an Independent in Dublin South. On Wednesday, Paul Sommerville declared on Tonight with Vincent Browne that he was running in Dublin South East and urged David McWilliams “to stand and be counted”.

McWilliams has yet to declare whether he will run in Dún Laoghaire and is reluctant to be regarded as the principal instigator of any new movement. The announcement by the Taoiseach of an election in 49 days’ time will now force others to get off the fence. For them, the prospect of taking to the political pitch has suddenly become very real.

My own sense is that there is some lack of knowledge of the basic skills needed in organising a constituency election campaign and of obligations to the standards commission.

McWilliams invited me to a meeting in Greystones last Saturday organised by Stephen Donnelly, an Independent candidate for Wicklow. A couple of Donnelly’s classmates from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, who worked for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign in the crucial swing state of Ohio, hosted a training day for election volunteers.

Management consultant Donnelly, who is 35 and has a young family, is on leave from McKinsey Company. He is representative of the demographic that any new political movement would be keen to tap into.

Those in Greystones were primarily well-educated young professionals in their 30s, many of them female, and most of whom had never engaged in formal politics until now.

Many were in negative equity and spoke in emotive terms about the consequences of the December Budget on their January pay packets. They were exceptionally hostile to Fianna Fáil and had particularly negative sentiments towards Enda Kenny and political parties in general.

I don’t know if there are other Donnelly-type campaign initiatives around the country. I assume there are and that they are mostly urban based. A little like the Tea Party movement in America, Ross, Sommerville, possibly McWilliams and Donnelly, are drifting towards one another in a loose affiliation of local groups.

Conversations refer to the emergence of a “movement” rather than a formal political party with a centralised leadership structures. Instead, what we are seeing has the semblance of a grassroots organisation which may not appear on any ballots but come together under the umbrella term of the New Ireland movement.

What effect will it have on the election? Despite the fierce antipathy towards Kenny, my sense is that if like-minded Independents secure 10-20 seats, they would be more ideologically comfortable in a coalition with Fine Gael rather than Labour. Sommerville’s comments on TV3 suggested as much: “I am not going to be opposed to everything say Fine Gael are proposing, I think some of their ideas are fantastically good.”

Just like the disintegration of the Government, the election may yet be unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented.

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