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Next election will herald an age of Independents

Flip-flops by Sinn Féin on hate speech, the Nature Restoration Law, and the recent referendums raise questions. If the bigger parties can’t speak clearly for themselves how can they speak for us?

Fine Gael reshuffled this week under a new leader, and the Fianna Fáil ardfheis begins on Friday night. The political centre is still above water but not seaworthy.

It is legacy politics that gets disproportionate attention, partially because it is the mainstay of government. Its former hinterland is now a patchwork of Independent TDs and small parties. More Independent TDs will stand at the next election than Fine Gael can muster. That is what the tide going out looks like.

Irish politics is about to become more complex. Independents and small parties – unless one of the big three parties surges – will be kingmakers in the next Dáil. If Sinn Féin’s rise has abated and it doesn’t have the numbers or alliances to form a government, Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael will likely be better positioned to do so. They would, however, fall far short of the number of seats required.

If it is crystallised on election day the flattening of the upward curve for Sinn Féin changes everything. It puts Independent TDs and smaller parties centre stage in what will be a much more complicated scenario in a Dáil of 174 seats, 14 more than now.


There is a tipping point for Sinn Féin in terms of its future hegemony. Anything below that point means it is unlikely to form a government. It must on its own command sufficient seats to ensure it is the centre of a future coalition that Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael cannot match. That requires a string of second seats in constituencies across the country.

On current opinion poll numbers Sinn Féin is not set for government. The other two of the big three have the advantage on a bad day, with intraparty transfers keeping them alive. That they have neither momentum nor purchase in the wider society won’t matter. They just need enough dead wood to stay afloat to be reused as a life raft one last time.

In terms of mood change, the series of policy flip-flops by Sinn Féin on hate speech, the Nature Restoration Law, and the recent referendums leave a sense of uncertainty and cynicism. If they cannot speak clearly for themselves, how can they speak for us? People are looking for an authentic voice, and are prepared to go further to find it.

The public mood is dour, especially in rural areas. That is not based on empirical fact in an economy that is doing well. But there is angst and a sense of abandonment which, if hard to tally in real terms, nonetheless exists. There is a general sense of precariousness and insecurity. Farmers feel beset by changed policy that has reversed direction in terms of what is expected of them. The Green Party and its leader Eamon Ryan, mild mannered people, are bogey men. They are certainly scapegoats locally and for their partners in Government on the ground in rural constituencies.

On climate change the three larger parties face the worst of all worlds. They pay lip service to what clearly must be done, but don’t embrace the consequences. The palpable reticence of many of their TDs fuels a sense of climate change being used to bludgeon rural communities.

Having never embraced the issue and signed up for the consequences solely to cobble together a government in the aftermath of their electoral debacle in 2020, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are now victims of their own evasiveness. As we saw in the referendums people won’t co-operate with change that even the politicians who advocate for it clearly don’t believe in.

At the fringes of rural disaffection is climate denial and anti-immigrant sentiment that bleeds into outright racism. This is where the metropolitan snobbery comes in. It is reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s infamous accusation at a fundraiser in New York City in 2016 that half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” characterised by “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic” views. She went on to lose every rural county in the USA. People who feel alienated won’t be spoken at or spoken down to. It is not effective politics and won’t work.

There is no homogeneous band of Independents that we can choose or reject, but that might be changing in places. Three TDs – Michael Fitzmaurice, Michael Collins and Richard O’Donoghue – have formed Independent Ireland, a new party. In Wexford Verona Murphy is running a slate of candidates for the local elections. There is a template in what the Independent Alliance, a loose but durable group, achieved in 2016. Headed by Shane Ross, it put him into Cabinet and two of his colleagues became ministers of state.

What matters is whether Sinn Féin can win second seats in constituencies across the country. If they can’t it will be a reprieve for smaller parties and Independents on its left. These will not support any process of government formation but will add to the numerical complexity of doing so in circumstances where Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael then have a pathway back.

From Social Democrats to Aontú, and canny players like Fitzmaurice and Murphy, the void left behind by underperforming larger parties will be filled in a larger Dáil. The rules of a campaign that keeps them off the main stage in television studios may mitigate against them. But for now a pivotal position is theirs to lose.