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Column: Nobody likes the party whips – but our democracy needs them

TDs are often blamed for toeing their party line, writes Eoin O’Malley, but the alternatives would be even worse.

Eoin O'Malley

BEFORE CHRISTMAS, THE Labour party expelled a number of its TDs from the parliamentary party for voting against the government – among them Patrick Nulty, who was barely in the Dáil a wet week, and Tommy Broughan, who is a serial offender (this was his fourth time to lose the whip).

The whip system which guides TDs how to vote is rarely thought of highly. Just the word ‘whip’ evokes ideas of torture and pain, of people being forced into acting in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. The political commentator Elaine Byrne wrote a few years ago that “deep-seated institutional change must rebalance the relationship between the government and the Dáil… by reducing the power of the whip and allowing more issues to be decided by free votes.” More recently Young Fine Gael carried a motion for the relaxation of the whip in non-budgetary votes.

Ireland, like most parliamentary democracies in Europe, tends to see TDs vote along party lines. The assumption is that this is because of the party whip, but of course people tend to join parties because they agree with the philosophy of the party, so it’d hardly be a surprise if all Sinn Féin TDs were to vote to against a motion to invite the UK monarch to visit Ireland, or if all People Before Profit TDs were to vote against a cut in social welfare payments. Even if TDs do tend to take the lead from their whips – and we should probably assume that on the many issues TDs don’t bother thinking too deeply about how they’ll vote – is it necessarily a bad thing (for voters and the efficient running of the country) if TDs vote on party lines?

Of course it does seem to make sense that we expect our TDs to consider every Bill in detail before voting in a Dáil division. But think about how much work this would entail. It is much more efficient if TDs specialise in certain areas and develop some expertise. They can then enter agreements with people they trust and whose political outlook they broadly share and agree to support each other’s proposals.

‘You can’t tell TDs NOT to vote along party lines’

In order to ensure that person A doesn’t do vote for person B’s proposal and then find that person B doesn’t reciprocate they set up parties with the ability to censure. In the scheme of things, getting kicked out of a parliamentary party isn’t such a big deal. And that’s the calculation that TDs make. If they think that they’ve a much better chance of re-election by voting against their party whip, they will sometimes do it. They vote against the party, the party expels them, and then they quietly get readmitted a few months later. Meanwhile Denis Naughten and Willie Penrose will have been careful to have cut out clippings from their local papers fêting them as heroes for standing up to their party.

Even if you disagree with such mendacious co-operation between TDs and thinks free votes are more wholesome, we still need to think how to achieve them. We can think about possible measures. You can effectively achieve free votes through the secret ballot. If their party doesn’t know how the TD voted, it cannot reprimand the TD for voting a particular way. But isn’t this inherently undemocratic? As voters we’d like to know how our TDs vote on certain issues. If we can’t see their voting record (and we’re not going to trust them to tell the truth) how will know who we’re voting for?

Nor can we legislate for them. You can’t tell TDs NOT to vote on party lines. This is preventing TDs from forming mutually-beneficial arrangements. This would be undemocratic, and arguably politics without parties could be chaotic.

The most plausible way I can see us achieve this is by making TDs more independent of their party. TDs will listen to their party leadership because the leadership controls important resources most TDs want. These include jobs (cabinets seats, committee chairs etc.) and access to electoral resources (through candidate selection, campaign finance).  It’s probably the case that the Irish system, which allows voters to prefer candidates from within parties to others, makes our TDs more independent of party leadership than in most other places. We could go a bit further and have open primaries and further reduce the power of the party.

But if we look at the place where the legislature is not controlled by the government, and the legislators are unconstrained by party whips – the US – there we see as much if not more pandering to constituency rather than national interests than anywhere else in the world.
I agree with the need to separate government and the Dáil, but I’m not sure that encouraging free votes might not only be achievable in a way that might have other less-desirable effects.

Eoin O’Malley is Lecturer in Irish Politics at Dublin City University. He doesn’t play rugby for Leinster and never would, even if they asked him. You can follow him on Twitter @AnMailleach.

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Eoin O'Malley

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