Stormont needs its mavericks or the current disconnect between rulers and ruled will get wider
They're Stormont's 'naughty step' - the independents and members of smaller parties. But they number only six out of 108 MLAs, and the odds are against them all being re-elected in May. Alex Kane reports
Given the enormous disconnect that exists between the Assembly and public opinion in Northern Ireland - not to mention the ongoing downturn in voting - it's actually surprising that there have been so few genuinely independent voices elected since 1998.
Opinion poll and anecdotal evidence suggests that substantial numbers of non-voters are unhappy with the "same-old same-old" parties and would welcome the opportunity to vote for "something different".
Yet there has been very little obvious sign of the "something different". And, given the fact that so many people - again, most of them non-voters - believe that the current party political stalemate is unlikely to deliver much in the way of change, it's also surprising that so few independent voices have taken their chances and thrown their hats into the electoral ring.
But the biggest surprise of all, I think, is that since 1998 only one person who could be described as a genuinely independent candidate has been elected to the Assembly.
That was Dr Kieran Deeny, who was elected for West Tyrone in 2003 on the sole ticket of saving the Tyrone County Hospital from closure. He topped the poll and cost the SDLP what had been considered a safe seat.
He stood again in 2007, this time on the issue of the impending closure of a Sion Mills branch surgery, but had to wait until the seventh count for election. He didn't stand in 2011.
In the first Assembly (1998-2003) three independent unionists were elected, but within a matter of weeks they had formed the United Unionist Assembly Party.
In 2003 Robert McCartney and David Ervine were elected as the sole representatives of the United Kingdom Unionist Party and PUP, so were not, specifically speaking, independent MLAs.
In 2007 Dr Deeny was again returned as the sole independent, with Brian Wilson elected as the sole representative of the Green Party.
Sinn Fein's Gerry McHugh resigned from the party in November 2007, described himself as an independent, and then joined Fianna Fail in November 2009.
In 2011 Jim Allister and Steven Agnew were the sole representatives of the TUV and Greens, with David McClarty (having been deselected by the UUP before the election) elected as an independent unionist.
Since then McClarty has died and been replaced with Claire Sugden. David McNarry was expelled from the UUP and now sits for Ukip.
Basil McCrea left the UUP and sits as an NI21 representative; while John McCallister has sat as UUP, NI21, and now as an independent unionist.
And while the so-called "naughty step" may now be occupied by Allister, Agnew, Sugden, McNarry, McCrea and McCallister, not one of them is a fully-fledged independent since both Sugdeon and McCallister are clearly on the pro-Union side of the fence, even if they don't belong to a particular party.
Would the Assembly be better if it had more independent voices? Well, given the contributions made by Allister, Agnew and McCallister in terms of their Private Member's Bills and the very thoughtful contributions from Sugden on a whole range of issues, the answer would probably have to be yes.
McNarry and McCrea have also made their voices heard - although, like the others, the pecking-order nature of Assembly procedures means they often have to wait a very long time and find themselves addressing fewer than a dozen other MLAs.
McCrea is also using social media - particularly Periscope and other video devices - to enhance his role as a sole voice and, quite often, invites his followers to tune in to his running commentary on what is happening during Assembly debates and committees.
It's certainly a novel approach, which may have something to do with his view that mainstream media is too negative and no longer as interested in him personally, so it will be interesting to see if it plays a significant part in his bid to be re-elected in May.
That said, if you are a lone voice with few opportunities to be heard then it makes sense to maximise those opportunities by other means, as he is doing.
More independent voices will also be increasingly important if, as seems likely, we will not have a proper Opposition after the election.
The Fresh Start document promised a role for those parties which were entitled to Executive places, but chose not to take them: but the role seems to me to be very limited.
McCallister's Opposition Bill is still in the system, but time isn't on his side and it doesn't look like the DUP and Sinn Fein will be prepared to support the more radical and most important elements of it.
My guess is that, if the UUP and SDLP have the chance to take Executive seats in May, they'll take them rather than spend four years in an Opposition that will have few teeth and precious little bite.
It's also worth bearing in mind that legislation going through the Assembly cutting back on the number of departments and MLAs (whose numbers will be slashed by 18 from 2020) will also strengthen the hand of the Executive parties and reduce the chances of smaller parties and independents being elected.
That is potentially very bad news - particularly in the absence of any evidence whatsoever that the relationship between the "big two" parties is likely to improve anytime soon.
Which brings us to the media. It is not the job of the media - let alone columnists and commentators - to serve as the official Opposition in Northern Ireland.
But we seem to have been forced into that role because there is no Opposition in the Assembly (and just because a party or individual MLA chooses to describe themselves as the Opposition doesn't mean that they are the Opposition), and there are no independents to act as "watchdogs".
As it happens, most of us who spend our lives watching the Assembly would much rather be talking about genuine socio-economic/big ticket stuff than having to try and make sense of yet another pointless, manufactured spat.
But, in the absence of that era-changing legislation and flooded with Press releases in which the parties bitch about each other, it's really no surprise that we gravitate towards the negative. In the next few weeks the organisations, individuals and non-voters who are most concerned about a dysfunctional Assembly and the lack of credible alternatives within its ranks are going to have to decide if they are concerned enough to put their case to the electorate.
We need new parties. We need genuinely independent voices.
We need a bona fide Opposition.
We need to narrow the disconnect between government and governed.
The next mandate will include the 21st anniversary of this Assembly: it would be good to have something to celebrate.