Irish election: Rise of the independents

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The World

STEPASIDE, Ireland — He has an upper-class Anglo-Irish accent, which usually grates on most Irish ears, and he is not linked with any political party. But almost every person whom Shane Ross met while campaigning on a damp Wednesday evening in this village near Dublin gave him a warm reception and a promise of support in Ireland’s Feb. 25 election.

Never in Irish history have the mainstream political parties been so unpopular and the independent candidates so confident of forming an influential group in the next Dail (parliament).

Normally individuals have little chance in Irish elections. They hold only nine of the 166 seats in the outgoing Dail. But this time the number of independent hopefuls contesting seats has more than doubled since the last election, from 108 to 233. They are capitalizing on national outrage over the financial catastrophe that befell Ireland under the ruling Fianna Fail-Green coalition.

Even though popular Foreign Minister Micheal Martin has taken over leadership of Fianna Fail from disgraced Taoseaich (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen, the party is heading for a drubbing. It has long been dominant in Irish politics, consistently polling higher than 40 percent. Recent polls show its support has fallen below 15 percent. Observers wonder whether the biggest opposition party, Fine Gael, led by Enda Kenny, will do much better than Fianna Fail in the upcoming contest, though it is likely to form a coalition government with Labor after the election.

Ross is a long-standing member of the — powerless — Irish Senate and a noted muckraking journalist who has authored hard-hitting bestsellers, including "The Bankers: How the Banks Brought Ireland to its Knees."

Several former Fianna Fail loyalists in Stepaside, an ancient stagecoach stop on the road to Dublin that is now enveloped in suburban sprawl, promised to give the affable independent their number one vote. They expressed admiration in equal measure for Ross’ exposure of high-level corruption, and for his wife, Ruth Buchanan, a popular radio presenter who campaigns at his side.

Under Ireland’s proportional representation voting system, a specific number of candidates are elected from each constituency, with voters marking their choice in declining order.
More than a dozen candidates are fighting for South Dublin’s five seats, currently held by two Fianna Fail, two Fine Gael and one Green party member.

After giving Ross a mild grilling at her front door in Stepaside Park, businesswoman and former Fianna Fail supporter Lisa Smith said that she was leaning in his direction. She has always been a staunch Fianna Fail supporter, she said, but she hesitated now to transfer her vote to Fine Gael, as “I’ve an issue with Enda Kenny being Taoiseach.”

A neighboring charity worker, who gave his name only as Paul, said, “I’ve voted Fianna Fail all my life but not this time, because they are responsible for our economic crisis and they have made Ireland a joke abroad.”

Door-to-door canvassing is traditional in Irish elections, with candidates handing out leaflets and occasionally engaging in brief, polite debate before racing back down a garden path and up the next one, always on the lookout for aggressive dogs.

This time aggressive voters are a bigger danger to conventional politicians, eager to vent their frustration at punitive taxes, high unemployment, poor services, renewed emigration and — most of all — a burning sense of shame at the once-rich country’s new mendicant status.

In November, Ireland was obliged to seek an 85 billion euro ($116 billion) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, tying the hands of the main parties in formulating policies. A scathing criticism of Fianna Fail’s performance by author Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair — he accused Finance Minister Brian Lenihan (and Merrill Lynch) of “sticking Ireland with a debt of $106 billion” — has added to the impression of Fianna Fail incompetence.

“I would rather stick pins in my eyes; you are a load of gangsters,” a woman called out to Fianna Fail cabinet minister Mary Hanafin as she canvassed parents Wednesday at a school in her constituency of Dun Laoghaire.

Though party leaders must fight for election in their constituencies — Micheal Martin in Cork South Central, Enda Kenny in Mayo and Labor leader Eamon Gilmore in Dun Laoghaire — the election has been enlivened by U.S. presidential-style debates on television.

The first took place Tuesday between Martin and Gilmore, but Kenny refused to take part, protesting that the leaders of two smaller parties, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and John Gormley of the Green party, should have been included.

In an imitation of the political knockabout in United States campaigns, Kenny was followed around for a day by a man dressed as a chicken, just as George H.W. Bush was dogged by a "chicken" in 1992 for hesitating to debate Bill Clinton.

American-style town hall meetings are also becoming a feature of Irish politics, and some of the best-attended are being held in Wicklow by independent candidate Stephen Donnelly, a consultant with the global management firm McKinsey, who is being helped by former Harvard classmates who worked to elect U.S. President Barak Obama. His meetings have attracted fans of another supporter, economic guru David McWilliams, who is offering his advice free to independent candidates.

Shane Ross reckons that independents could be pivotal in the new Dail, though they will be divided into three groups: centrists like himself, left-wingers and individuals who would support the government in cases when it brought benefits to their constituencies.

“Irish public life has been cursed by crony politics,” said Ross as he peered through the drizzle for houses with lights on. It’s time to end “tribal politics” he added, referring to the perverse tradition in Ireland of families voting either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, according to how their ancestors lined up in Ireland’s 1922-1923 civil war. If elected he hopes to join like-minded independents, hold ministers' feet to the fire, and “break the circle of powerful people ruling the country and reform the political system.”

At a two-story detached house, a man came to the door, recognized Ross in the gloom, and stretched out his hand. “You’re about the only politician who will get a number one around here,” he said.

The bookmakers feel the same. Ross is 1-10 to win a seat in Dublin South — 10 euros to win one. In a year of revolutions, Irish voters look likely to win one at the polls.

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