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Aaron McKenna: We need more Lucinda Creightons – politicians who actually believe in something

Lucinda Creighton isn’t perfect and she may have embarked on a Quixotic adventure in relation to abortion – you can decide for yourself about that. But one thing nobody can deny is that we need more politicians like her, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

DURING THE FIRST marathon night of the abortion debate Prime Time journalist Katie Hannon put a line to Senator Paul Bradford on his wife and colleague, Lucinda Creighton, that about sums up the thinking of many politicos whom I have spoken to in recent weeks: “A lot of people are baffled that someone would throw away a high flying career on a point of principle.”

Put aside your feelings for the moment on the abortion bill, pro or contra, and consider that sentiment by itself.

Consider also the statement in the Dail from Michelle Mulherin, a Fine Gael TD who had opposed the bill but came round in the end. Unlike many other colleagues who had a change of heart after a strong arm twisting, she told it straight: she wasn’t supporting the bill because she had been convinced of its merits matching her morals. She was supporting it because she didn’t want to get the boot from her party, and the air of sulk about her was palpable as she spat the words out.

How our politicians be so easily bought?

I know an awful lot of people think that both Creighton and Mulherin and others were silly to oppose this bill in the form it was passed. This is one of, if not the single most, divisive issues in Irish politics. But we must not allow our opinions on this matter to cloud our view of just what a shambolic charade most of Irish politics is when deeply held convictions on any matter are so easily bought or dismissed.

Agree or disagree with her, nobody can argue that Lucinda Creighton does not hold her views on the matter strongly. She has lost her job, her place in the Fine Gael parliamentary party and the easy prospect of future career advancement in that party rather than lose her convictions. That takes courage, it takes character and it is the mark of an individual of substance rather than a hollow-cored careerist.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” said Otto von Bismark in 1867. Much of lawmaking is about compromise and finding ways through conflicting demands and positions, particularly in coalition government. But I firmly believe that if you do not anchor yourself to some deeply held beliefs to guide the daily work of politics, what is the point of seeking government other than to retain “one more hour in the sun”, as Colm Keaveney said of the cabinet when he departed the Labour party.

Our politicians are, by and large, empty vessels

Denis Noughton is another Fine Gael TD who has paid the price for upholding promises made during an election, and more the fool he for doing it think his colleagues. During the election a solemn pledge was made to the people of his constituency that was almost immediately reneged upon. So crass are our political leaders that Enda Kenny denied having personally made any such promise, right up until a Sunday Business Post journalist produced a tape of him saying it to people. There’s an old children’s rhyme about combustable garments that springs to mind.

Look past the abortion debate and remind yourself that we live in a world where our politicians are, by and large, empty vessels. They will say anything to you before an election and do whatever becomes convenient afterwards. Any party line will be toed in return for a crack at a ministerial post or a seat in committee, or even the vague promise of advancement in future. If it comes down to it, our legislators will vote as they’re told because they’re afraid of being deselected at the next election and losing their seat in the comfortable world of Leinster House.

Conscience and honesty of conviction extends to all issues. Just last week I wrote about internet censorship, pointing out that Minister Sean Sherlock told us categorically that the government was not introducing legislation to block websites. Last week, The Pirate Bay was blocked using that same legislation. Enda, Eamon and the rest of the boys attended protests at cuts to services for kids with disabilities… in 2010. Michael Martin was in that government that made the cuts in 2010, only to show up at protests against them in 2013.

My proposal: whip votes on legislation outlined in the programme for government

Things change, of course, and politics is about compromise. But that is not a blanket excuse for breaking with seemingly rock solid core matters of conscience. The leaders of our political parties set the bar for all who follow them in upholding their convictions, being honest and keeping promises. They don’t set the bar very high.

We really need more conviction politics in Ireland. The nature of our parliamentary democracy that sees the executive so tightly wound into the legislative branch makes it difficult for government to function without the party whip. The party whip meanwhile makes it difficult for the legislative branch to do its job in overseeing the executive, and stifles almost all potential for it to actually legislate on its own.

I think there is a compromise position between the need for government to enact policy, and the right of parliamentarians to exercise their vote as their convictions demand. I would propose a system where the government is enabled to whip votes on legislation outlined in its programme for government and a certain amount beyond that as circumstances dictate. The Dail would then be free to vote as members wish on all other matters, including its own operation, the censoring of ministers, member introduced legislation and on matters of conscience.

Hold a free vote to establish ‘matters of conscience’

Matters of conscience could include the abortion bill. If there’s debate over whether or not it’s a matter of conscience in the first place or something the government is entitled to whip, hold a free vote beforehand to decide. A vote about a vote, sounds convoluted and messy eh? Well, “democracy is the worst form of government… Except for all the others we’ve tried,” said Winston Churchill.

This would enable the Dail to actually function in overseeing the activities of government. By definition, the government holds a majority in the Dail. It takes a majority to do anything about government policy or to hold ministers to account and so on. If the whip is used all the time, parliament cannot function.

Likewise, it is not right to whip votes on matters of conscience; or to stifle legislators from introducing legislation that can have any chance of actually being passed.

This won’t prevent some people from toeing the tacit party line. But it will make it easier to spot the weak-kneed careerists for the politicians who actually believe in something. It will also make it less dangerous to show your belief in any sort of core conviction.

Lucinda Creighton isn’t perfect and she may have embarked on a Quixotic adventure in relation to abortion. You can decide for yourself about that. But one thing nobody can deny is that we need more Lucinda Creightons: politicians who actually believe in something.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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