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Column: Give the Dáil a conscience – let our representatives speak their minds

The whip system denies elected representatives their rights and belittles our democracy, writes Colm Bergin.

Colm Bergin

THE RECENT MOVES by Colm Keaveney, Peadar Toibin and the members of the Reform Alliance, and the subsequent effort to try and silence them by their respective parties for voting against has highlighted something quite unsettling about Ireland’s political process. Our elected representatives cannot vote with their conscience for fear of being punished. These people were castigated for voting against something that they fundamentally disagreed with and the system facilitated this punishment.

Surely everyone in the Dáil should be allowed – and expected – to vote whichever way their conscience dictates. Our electoral system in Ireland allows us to vote for an individual. Whether that person gets our vote because he or she is a member of a certain political party is a moot point. Some 73-80% of people vote for candidates for reasons other than their membership of a political party. The electorate votes for an individual who espouses their ideals, or somebody who they have met on a doorstep.

But, according to the system that is in place; when that person is elected they must follow a particular party line. They must do what the party leadership commands or meet the same fate as Mr Keaveney, Mr Toibin and the Fine Gael ‘rebels’. This obedience to the party line is reinforced by the party whip system that we have in place.

Freedom of political expression

However, there is a way that this could be prevented, and the political party whip made redundant. One way to achieve this freedom of political expression would be for the Irish Constitution to introduce an Article that calls on any member of the Oireachtas to vote according to their conscience and thus putting political expedience second.

This has worked in other countries. Article 38 of the German constitution states the members of the Bundestag are responsible only to their conscience. Were this to be introduced in Ireland, it would have a profound effect on the efficacy of our parliament. This simple Article whereby an oath would have to be sworn by all newly elected representatives upon entering the Dáil or the Seanad, has the possibility of changing our political culture fundamentally.

This Article would make TDs debate proposed legislation thoroughly rather than just follow what the leadership is telling them to do. People often compare our parliament with those of the UK and US which, in fact, possess and act with greater autonomy than ours. The fact that the political party whips in these countries are much weaker than that of Ireland is a chief reason for this. They cannot tell their members what to do, because that would be seen as encroaching on their democratic right as representatives.

This isn’t a new problem, but it is a pervasive one

Opponents of such an Article suggest two main flaws. Firstly, they suggest that there is no way to ensure that people would follow their conscience. This argument is disparaging due to the fact that when people are being tried in court for murder, treason or corruption and are asked to swear that they will tell the whole truth, we expect them to do it. The fact that we put more faith in people who are being tried for these crimes than those elected to serve in the Oireachtas paints a strange picture for the standards voters are expecting for their officials.

The second problem people have with this idea is that they feel it would be difficult for Bills to get passed because there would be nothing making people vote for it. Once again, this supposed flaw belittles our system and those elected to it. If it is a good idea then people will vote for it. If it is a bad idea people will vote against it. For a TD to be told that something is good or bad, by their party leadership, truly does not do the public justice, because if an idea is proposed and its values and flaws are debated then surely TDs are mature enough to make up their own minds. If they are not, then they do not deserve the office.

This isn’t a new problem, but it is a pervasive one. Legislation has been pushed through in recent years, most notably the Property Tax Bill and the Personal Insolvency legislation, without proper consideration or adequate debate. If elected representatives were obliged to vote according to their conscience, then maybe some of the recent disastrous decisions – such as the bank guarantee – would not have been made, and even if they had been, representatives would not be in a position to blame somebody else for them.

Colm Bergin has experience in both politics and public policy having worked in New York, Brussels and Washington DC. He is a graduate of Government and Public Policy at UCC and holds a Diploma in Law from the IPA.

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Colm Bergin

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