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Dublin: 13 °C Monday 20 October, 2014

Column: The party whip system is far too rigid – and it’s offensive to democratic ideals

I have a lot of time for the Taoiseach, but his leadership has been autocratic and even authoritarian in a representative democracy and I find this unsettling, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly

THESE ARE TURBULENT days in Irish politics.  More than twenty years after the X case, the government has published legislation that will provide for abortion in very limited circumstances and with very rigorous safeguards.  A campaign has just commenced on the referendum that will give the people the option to abolish Seanad Éireann.

Moreover, and with these two developments acting as fuel for the fire, the long unquestioned party whip system is being subjected to real scrutiny. All of this has engendered heated and sometimes emotional debate. And it is all inextricably intertwined.

Opportunity there for real political leadership

This volatile context presents an ideal opportunity to consider the matter of political leadership. What should it mean? And what does it mean – or, more specifically, what passes for it? – in Ireland in 2013?

Before doing so, lest any of what follows be perceived to be in pursuit of one agenda or other, let me put my cards on the table. I am not a member of an Irish political party; I support legislation for the X case, as it will provide desperately needed clarity; I favour Seanad reform, not abolition, because I think a renewed upper house could be very good for this country; I believe the party whip system is way too rigid and offensive to democratic ideals.

Additionally, I have a lot of time for the Taoiseach.  I consider him an honest and a decent man with an admirable capacity for empathy.  I think he is far more able than his critics say he is and that he has thrived on being underestimated.  It may be glib or trivial to some, but I also like that he is from the west of Ireland.

I have never heard a finer speech

While many people regard the Taoiseach’s Dáil speech in which he finally called the Catholic Church to account for its misdeeds as his finest hour, I actually liked his Boston College commencement speech last month even better.  I have never read a finer speech.  The fact that he gave it when my Cardinal, Seán Patrick O’Malley, quite unfortunately and rather bizarrely saw fit to boycott the event rendered it even more poignant.  I know that good speeches and speechwriters do not make a good political leader. However, it takes someone compelling, like Enda Kenny, to truly deliver them.

Yet I have significant difficulties with the leadership he has offered the present government in recent times.  I have an even more profound difficulty with the widespread notion in the media and elsewhere that it’s been “strong” leadership.

On the X case legislation, Stephen Collins writes in The Irish Times that the Taoiseach “has bluntly told his TDs and Senators that anyone who defies the whip will be cast out of the party for the foreseeable future and will have to contest the next election as Independents.”  On the Seanad abolition referendum, something he reportedly announced as gospel in a 2010 speech without having consulted any of his party colleagues, the Taoiseach has been equally steadfast and single-minded.

Referendum being rammed through the Oireachtas

It’s now been revealed that the Bill to hold the referendum will likely be guillotined and rammed through the Oireachtas as fast as possible. Indeed, this government, notwithstanding campaign promises to the contrary, has guillotined debates on 52 of the 90 Bills it has brought forward since coming into power.

One would be hard-pressed to argue that the Taoiseach’s leadership on these matters hasn’t been autocratic.  That his leadership has been autocratic and even authoritarian in a representative democracy is unsettling.  That this style is perceived as “strong” – “Enda’s got bottle” – and is respected by so many in the political know in this country is downright disturbing.

Meanwhile, Micheál Martin is seen as “weak” or “wobbly” because he declined to impose the whip on the X case legislation.  It seems as though he wanted to, but just didn’t have the numbers on his side and couldn’t afford to alienate an historically small Fianna Fáil parliamentary party.  Still, he made the right decision and went a step further in pledging to create a party committee to look at allowing more free votes on issues (not just abortion) which precipitate legitimate crises of conscience for legislators.

Reform of the past born out of proverbial smoke-filled rooms

While rooted in realpolitik, this could be the first step in far-reaching reform of the party whip system.  And given that politics is a grubby business, a quick survey of major reforms will show that most were born not from lofty heights, but in proverbial smoke-filled rooms.

Defining with any precision what optimal political leadership is lies beyond the scope of these ruminations.  Yet in my perhaps idealistic view, it is better that a political leader vastly prefer consensus to collision – to “know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em” before reflexively and vociferously going the “my way or the highway” route.  The latter is celebrated as a sign of strength and the former is ridiculed as a sign of weakness in Ireland.  That’s too bad.

Larry Donnelly, a Boston attorney, is a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com. To read more articles by Larry for TheJournal.ie click here.

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