Independents add a splash of colour

Posted By: April 25, 2016

Tom Kelly. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, April 25, 2016

As A rule Northern Ireland does not do ‘independents’ at elections.

Perhaps that’s because so many of the political parties have their mavericks. Yet in the Republic of Ireland it’s the independents with their pork barrel demands that are holding the country to ransom or holding the balance of power, if you prefer to be polite. Whether or not we Northerners see an opportunity to follow that or not, is untested,  but looking at the lists there’s quite a selection to choose from.

Let’s start with the best known of the independents, outgoing MLA John McCallister in South Down. John was one half of the failed political experiment that was formerly known as NI21.

He is a thoroughly decent type,  as adept at calving as to midwifery as he actually helped his wife give birth to one of his children. Unless the cards fall sympathetically on election day John would seem destined to return to
full-time farming.

Though not technically an independent with his People before Profit label, Eamon McCann is another high profile individual outside of the main political stables. McCann seems in a perpetual state of agitation against something or another. He is the Peter Pan of serial protesting and age has not dimmed him. He has a fair chance of winning a seat in Foyle much to the chagrin of both SF and the SDLP who are engaged in their own version of Game of Thrones.

McCann may suffer because of the intervention of another independent – Anne McCloskey who is a local GP.

Down on the border another independent hopes to cut his electoral teeth in the electoral bear pit of South Armagh. Passionate about his area and with an impeccable republican lineage, Crossmaglen man Martin McAllister is taking the fight right into Sinn Féin’s backyard. Health is his main issue and he has the backing of popular local GP Pat Fee – brother of the late SDLP MLA John Fee. It’s a big ask to overturn an increased Sinn Féin vote but McAllister hopes that the SDLP decision to swap South Down MLA Karen McKevitt into Newry and Armagh will work to his advantage. One suspects he would need more profile building.

One of the most colourful independent candidates has to be former DUP councillor Ruth Patterson.

Patterson takes no prisoners when it comes to her former colleagues and certainly has DUP pin-up favourite Emma Little Pengelly firmly in her sights. Patterson has taken the electorally inexperienced Jamie Bryson as a campaign director. It’s unlikely she will upset the final results but fully expect her to land a few body blows along the way.

Maurice Devenney, one-time of the DUP parish, nearly UUP and now independent may struggle against the DUP party machine in Foyle (and the DUP don’t do forgiveness).

Another former DUP MLA, now also independent, Paul Berry, has decided to throw his hat into a crowded unionist field in Newry and Armagh. Neither Devenney or Berry are expected to see a return to Stormont.

Susan Anne White, an independent candidate in West Tyrone, seems undaunted by her unpopularity. She contested the local government elections in 2014, garnering 67 votes (which is about 66 more than anyone could have expected) and she came ninth out nine candidates in the Westminster elections in 2015.

Her policies are certainly not bland – she would ban rock groups, outlaw feminism, ban abortion, punish adultery and recriminalise homosexuality. Her entertainment factor is high, but her deposit would have been better off in the Credit Union.

Jim Alister is not an independent, but he is the sole MLA of the TUV – though his looming image behind the shoulder of TUV candidates is very disconcerting. It reminded me of the time when unionists in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement registered then  Irish foreign minister, Peter Barry, as a candidate in all constituencies. Alister, who is actually superb as a one-man opposition voice, has openly said that failure to re-elect any other TUV representatives to Stormont would be failure, written in capital letters.

Smart money says TUV may struggle against ‘Team Arlene’ and a resurgent UUP under Mike Nesbitt, not to mention Ukip’s presence.

Independent candidates make elections more interesting as the modern mainstream political parties try to manage their candidates like Stepford wives.

Despite STV, it’s a struggle for independents to breakthrough and given the parochial nature of Stormont politics – no one party gets whole ownership of issues like education or health. But to their credit, independents bring colour to Ulster’s grey skies.