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Column: Toeing the party line on issues of conscience isn’t right

Ireland’s rigid party whip system erodes true democracy – and this is never so evident as on the issue of abortion, writes Larry Donnelly.

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I AM A permanent student of politics. It is my family business and it is my passion. As such, since I relocated to Ireland in 2001, I have immersed myself in Irish politics. In the early days, I devoured every book on twentieth century Irish political history I could get my hands on and used the 2002 general election (the first one I voted in) as a self-taught crash course in how the game is played on this side of the Atlantic. I have continued in this vein over the last topsy-turvy decade and now feel almost as comfortable discussing Irish politics as I do American politics.

I have come to more fully comprehend the nuances of politics here and enjoy that which is different every bit as much as that which is similar to the rough and tumble world of Boston politics I grew up in. My family, friends and acquaintances here who aren’t into politics regard me as an expert; the real experts at least respect my opinion.

Banished to the political wilderness

But there is one thing that I do not get, and refuse to ever get. That is the extremely rigid whip system which grossly distorts the power balance between individual elected officials and the leadership of the political parties they belong to.  It is, or at least should be, a fundamental tenet of a representative democracy that a candidate for political office, once elected, will remain true to herself and to those voters who placed their sacred trust in her. It is far more likely, however, that the elected representative will follow the dictates of the leadership of the political party she belongs to. To buck the leadership on just one vote typically means loss of the party whip and banishment to the political wilderness.

Surprisingly to me, this issue of imbalance is seldom addressed, though columnist and broadcaster Vincent Browne does vent at times about the power of the party whip. As Browne has observed with no small amount of exasperation, the status quo means that an elected representative’s personal beliefs and free will come second. Loyalty to his party comes first. While the rigid whip system is offensive to democratic ideals on matters of local and national import alike, it is particularly indefensible on issues of conscience. Regardless of their viewpoint, most people in Ireland can, I think, agree that abortion is one such issue. And understandably, it is no secret that individual TDs have their own, deeply held views on abortion legislation. Indeed, there is a range of differing opinions within each of the parliamentary parties.

It is, therefore, with dismay that I read the following statement by Enda Kenny this week in The Irish Times. “People who are elected to the party I lead… act and vote in accordance with party decisions. And that is the way that it will be.” In other words, no matter how profound a conviction you might have on the emotive and complex issue of abortion, if you are a Fine Gael TD, don’t even think about not voting with the government.

Rules of the game

It is unfair to single the Taoiseach out for criticism on this front. He is merely reaffirming the long-established rules of the game. Yet these rules mean that the politicians who advance into leadership positions get there because they have demonstrated relentless fidelity to their party above all else, as well as an aptitude for defending the party leadership from attack, even when objectively indefensible.  Consequently, Irish politicians are inevitably compromised by the time they get anywhere near the top. It is no wonder then that the electorate is so cynical about its political leaders and about politics in general.

The experts to whom I have made these observations claim that a less rigid whip system would threaten stability and cause gridlock. They also argue that it would necessitate a dramatic and probably unworkable change to how laws are made in this country. They cite the undeniable dysfunction of the American system, where intra-party dissent is not encouraged, but is generally tolerated, by both the Republicans and the Democrats. Perhaps most compellingly, they note that the executive and legislative aren’t entirely separate branches of government here.

These are all good points. A total absence of party discipline probably would provoke chaos. Yet this reality doesn’t ripen the rot at the core of Ireland’s rigid party whip system. It facilitates anti-democratic and dishonest governance. Never is this as evident as when TDs, who may run for office as the standard bearers of political parties but who are elected in their own right, are not “free” to vote their conscience on abortion.

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Larry Donnelly, a Boston born and bred lawyer, is a law lecturer at NUI Galway. He is a political columnist with

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