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Column: Lucinda Creighton and Tom Barry – the story of two political Irelands

Two Fine Gael TDs were in the spotlight this week but for completely different reasons, writes Gary Murphy, who says we need to decide what type of politics we want.

Gary Murphy

SO LUCINDA CREIGHTON has lost the Fine Gael whip and a politician widely seen as being one of the state’s most able parliamentarians has been sent to the political wilderness of the independent benches. There she will sit with some other former government malcontents all in one way or another dissatisfied with varying aspects of government policy.

Meanwhile during the so-called debate on one of the most important social pieces of legislation ever passed in the history of the independent Irish state the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, public life is convulsed by the behaviour of Fine Gael backbencher Tom Barry pulling his party colleague Aine Collins on to his lap in the early hours of the morning.

Obnoxious behaviour

His obnoxious and boorish behaviour was not only offensive to Deputy Collins but also brought the Houses of the Oireachtas into disrepute. In treating Dáil Eireann as some sort of adult playground for the puerile, Deputy Barry has shown a singular lack of respect to the Irish state and the institutions which serve it.

Deputy Barry’s behaviour is symptomatic of a wider problem in Irish politics and one which goes to the heart of the dysfunctional relationship between TDs and the Dáil they sit in. For the vast majority of TDs Dáil Eireann is little more than an inconvenience. A place where they have to go and vote every so often on bills they either may not understand or even care about. For the newly elected TD, particularly those from outside Dublin, once they get over the first day excitement of photographs with friends and family the Dáil is that place in the capital which they have to put up with for a few days before they can get back to their constituencies and tend their seats.

They have no real impact on legislation and primarily see themselves as public representatives. Political action, particularly for government backbenchers, means sitting on the odd committee and waiting for the week to pass. This may be harsh and is obviously not generalisable to all deputies but it does I believe accurately reflect the real situation.

The whip system

So what can be done to reform Irish political life? There has been a lot of discussion about the whip system which to use a terrible pun has become the whipping boy all that is wrong in Irish politics. Many view it as an outrage that TDs are herded cattle like into voting lobbies to do as they are told by the party whips, particularly so in relation to so called issues of conscience. But there is something to be said for the whip system. It ensures governments can effectively do their business in the reasonable expectation that their TDs will vote for legislation the party produces. If TDs decide for whatever reason to vote against their parties then there clearly must be sanctions for doing just that.

And although party identification is weaker amongst the voting public we only need to look at the 2011 general election to see the advantage for people like Tom Barry of running for established political parties. Radically reforming the whip system or giving leeway for the odd vote of conscience will still not get over the most fundamental tenet of Irish political life. That, as my DCU colleague Eoin O’Malley has pointed out, the government controls the Dáil agenda, controls election to chairs of committees, controls the election of the Ceann Comhairle and the party leaders control the careers of TDs.

The last point is instructive in the career of Lucinda Creighton. Long seen as a critic of Enda Kenny she nailed her colours firmly to the mast when joining the Richard Bruton-led heave against the Fine Gael leader in June 2010. That on his appointment as Taoiseach Kenny gave probably the most high profile ministerial of state position in his gift to Creighton was a sign of a politician comfortable in his own skin to give the job to the best person for it notwithstanding previous antagonisms.

Two political Irelands

She repaid him by doing an effective job but ultimately fell on her own sword when her conscience dictated she do so. Things might look bleak for her now but to use another cliché time is a great healer and with Creighton declaring that she has no interest in either running as an independent or being part of a new party we may not have heard the last of her yet in the Fine Gael blue jersey.

The behaviour of Lucinda Creighton and Tom Barry in the Dáil this week tells a story of two political Irelands.

The one which Creighton inhabits is an Ireland of thoughtful parliamentarians taking decisions in what they think is both in the best interest of their country and aligns with their own conscience. It is an Ireland which whether you agree with Creighton or not shows that Irish politics has substance.

The other, inhabited by Barry, is one which treats the Dáil with a disrespect and contempt and is symptomatic of an elite culture that has lost touch with reality and brought the country to its knees. We need to decide which Ireland we want.

Gary Murphy is Associate Professor of Politics and Head of the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University . You can follow Gary on Twitter@garymurphydcu. For more articles written by Gary for TheJournal.ie click here.

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