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Column: Rebel Rebel – why are Irish politicians so whipped?

The Fine Gael spat over abortion legislation has brought public attention to the party whip system – an issue that’s rarely discussed and yet determines the outcome of nearly every vote in the Dáil, writes Dr Matthew Wall.

Dr Matthew Wall

THE ONGOING SPAT within Fine Gael over the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill has brought public attention to the party whip system. This is an issue that is rarely discussed in Ireland, but it nonetheless determines the outcome of nearly every vote in the Dáil.

The whip system ensures that individual TDs toe the party line when voting. Most candidates (apart from independents) are required to take an oath that they will vote with their party, but it is up to the whip to see that this oath is enforced.

The idiom ‘whip’ comes to us from the world of hunting, referring to a huntsman’s assistant, the ‘whipper in’, who drives hounds who have strayed off-course back into the pack. Confusingly, the term has three separate (but related) meanings: 1) the party officer responsible for ensuring that TDs are made aware of and follow the party line; 2) the specific voting instructions that this officer sends to parliamentary party members, and; 3) a TD’s membership of their parliamentary party (this is the sense in which one can ‘lose the whip’).

Legislative ‘rebels’ are few and far between

Two recent publications, one by David Farrell,  the late Peter Mair, Séin Ó Muineacháin and myself, and another by DCU’s Shane Martin, look at this topic. Both pieces indicate just how few legislative ‘rebels’ Irish politics has produced. For instance, Martin uncovered only 15 instances of members deliberately voting against the party or abstaining without party permission between 1980 and 2010. He concludes that ‘by any comparative standard, the level of [Irish] parliamentary party unity is extraordinarily high’.

The puzzle is this: why are Irish politicians so deferential to their party, when our electoral system provides the parties with very little power to control their TDs, and our political culture emphasises the importance of candidates’ individual constituency profiles?

One potential answer is that TDs from the same parties simply always agree. However, the lack of ideological cohesion within Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is one of the more remarkable features of Irish politics, so it seems that this explanation is unlikely. Another is that TDs feel that they will not be able to win re-election without the backing of their party, but we know that TDs who have a strong constituency profile can continue to win re-election after losing the whip – witness the political longevity of Michael Lowry.

Naked careerism

The most plausible explanation for deference to the whip is careerism. The parties control the allocation of numerous appointments that can further the career (and add to the financial wealth) of a TD, and party loyalists are favoured when such posts are awarded. Furthermore, those who lose the whip also lose their party-controlled appointments (for instance, Lucinda Creighton is unlikely to continue to be a Minister of State if she loses the Fine Gael whip).

However, it is our political culture that allows such naked careerism to prevail. Irish voters tend to focus on local/personal issues, and TDs work hard on the cases brought to them by individual constituents – indeed, there is evidence that the average TDs spends more time on this sort of work than they do working in the Dáil. Thus, TDs get a ‘free pass’ from voters when it comes to their behaviour in the national arena, leaving them free to maximize their career prospects by always voting with the whip, without fear of  sanction from the electorate.

The whip makes our legislature one of the weakest in Europe

Why is this important? Because it is through their use of the party whip that the government rams legislation through the Dáil with no prospect of real scrutiny or amendment, and blocks proposals made by non-government TDs and Senators. By slavishly adhering to the whip, Ireland’s TDs have allowed our legislature to become one of the weakest in Europe. By electing and re-electing constituency sloggers, the Irish people have implicitly rewarded this behaviour.

There is little sense in re-hashing the litany of governance errors that have taken place in recent years in Ireland due to the concentration of power in the hands of a very small number of politicians and civil servants. We now know the consequences of such failings all too well. The Dáil was a willing bystander throughout the crisis, and will remain so as long as its members feel that their interests are best served by yielding to the whip.

The good news is that a weak Dáil is not an inevitable feature of the Irish system, but rather something that can be addressed by our parliamentarians at any time. The bad news is that they look unlikely to take this opportunity any time soon. For reasons that totally elude me, abortion is the only issue on which our TDs seem inclined to vote with their conscience.

Dr. Matthew Wall is a lecturer in politics at Swansea University. Website: www.politicalreform.ie

Poll: Should TDs who vote against their party face expulsion?>
Read: Lucinda Creighton seeks removal of suicidal ideation from abortion bill>

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Dr Matthew Wall

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