Election 2015 Northern Ireland

Election 2015: Independent candidates look to success

Palace of Westminster Image copyright NIKLAS HALLE'N
Image caption There have been little more than a dozen independents elected to Westminster since the Second World War

If you want to analyse the phenomenon of independent politicians, North Down is the place to be.

Perhaps more than anywhere else in the UK, this area has a track record of electing representatives who don't have a big party machine behind them.

Lady Sylvia Hermon was the only independent MP elected to parliament in 2010. She's defending a huge majority - more than 14,000.

She says the good things about being an independent include "always being unanimous".

Lady Hermon points to the Commons vote against the government's plans for military action in Syria as an important part of her last term.

"I had made up my mind that I was not going to vote in favour of British involvement in Syria," she said.

"When we came to the major motion that was brought forward by the coalition government, I voted against, and was absolutely thrilled to be one of the 13 MPs who made a difference that night."

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Image caption The electorate will have an opportunity to vote for parties or independents on 7 May

With the polls predicting a hung parliament, and the possibility of more knife-edge votes, she says she would not prop up a Conservative government if it is supported by UKIP.

But she says that as a unionist, she also would not prop up a Labour administration if a deal is done with the SNP.

So Lady Hermon says she would take each vote as it comes.

In Groomsport, another successful independent politician is marking his quarter century as an elected representative.

Councillor Alan Chambers owns a shop in the village.

He thinks the main advantage of not being in a party is being able to make up his own mind about topics.

"I can think of nothing worse than being told how to vote when you don't want to vote that way," he says.

"You also don't need to worry about being tainted by a headline about what a party colleague has said or done. I only need to worry about myself."

So how do politicians keep ahead when they don't have party spin doctors, policy officers or political broadcasts?

The editor of the County Down Spectator, Paul Flowers, says that dealing with constituency problems is very important for representatives in the area - whether they are independent or in a party.

"Our politicians are very active in dealing with what you might think is the little stuff - dogs, drains, things like that. It may not be the big reason why they all wanted to go into politics in the first place, but it gets them elected the next time round."

In the Dail (Irish parliament), independents - and minor parties - have become a significant force.

There are currently 28 TDs designated as such.

Politicians like Mick Wallace, Claire Daly, and Luke "Ming" Flanagan (now an MEP) have high profiles and have made a major impact.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Lady Sylvia Hermon was the only independent MP elected to parliament in 2010

Some of the left-wing TDs see their independence as enabling them to pursue a form of politics which is more ideologically pure.

They have benefited from the decline in support for mainstream parties.

But at Westminster, independent MPs are thin on the ground.

There have been little more than a dozen elected since the Second World War.

The former BBC broadcaster Martin Bell was one of the best known.

The "man in the white suit" served as MP for Tatton from 1997 to 2001.

Image caption There are five independents from Northern Ireland standing for election on 7 May

He defeated the then Conservative Neil Hamilton after Mr Hamilton was involved in a cash-for questions scandal.

There are five independents standing for election in Northern Ireland on 7 May.

So with disillusionment in UK politics in general showing no sign of going away, will more independents be tempted to add their names to ballot papers over the next few years?

Rick Wilford, emeritus professor of Politics at Queen's University, says that may be the case - but only if the first-past-the-post electoral system for Westminster elections is replaced by PR, to give independents a better chance of getting seats.

He says you may get more candidates who "like Victor Meldrew, say 'I don't believe it, what these politicians are doing - I'm going to have a go myself.'

But that, I think is contingent on a change in the electoral system."

It's impossible to generalise about independent politicians - after all, individualism and independence go hand-in-hand.

But if there's one thing independents seem to have in common, it's that they relish being their own person.

The full list of candidates standing in North Down: Steven Agnew, Green Party; Mark Brotherston, Conservative; William Cudworth, TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice); Glenn Donnelly, Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol; Alex Easton, DUP; Sylvia Hermon, Independent; Jonny Lavery, UKIP; Therese McCartney, Sinn Féin; Andrew Muir, Alliance Party and Tom Woolley, SDLP.

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