Whips should be set aside to allow free vote on abortion
One of the few substantial innovations in parliamentary reform introduced so far in the current Dáil was the establishment of an Oireachtas Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions.
Among the committee’s strengths is the fact that it must be chaired by an Opposition politician. The task was given by Sinn Féin to their new Meath West deputy Peadar Tóibín and it was refreshing to hear him speaking with such enthusiasm a few months ago on radio about the comm- ittee and his ambitious plans for its work.
It is a great pity, therefore, that Tóibín will not see this work through. This week he was removed as chairman by party leader Gerry Adams, not because he proved wanting in the role but because he refused to vote with the party on a recent motion calling for the introduction of abortion legislation. Tóibín’s relatively strong anti-abortion views closely reflect his party’s position in the Northern Ireland Assembly but are at variance with its more liberal stance south of the Border.
Similarly, it would be a great pity if Lucinda Creighton, an effective Minister of State for European Affairs about to play a central role during the Irish presidency of the European Union, were to lose that position in circumstances where she found herself voting against the proposed legislation. Her views on abortion reflect Fine Gael’s position at the last general election but that position has changed.
The dilemma facing Tóibín and Creighton is just the latest consequence of the Oireachtas’s overly rigid whip system.
Issue of conscience
On Wednesday the Catholic bishops called for a free vote on the abortion legislation, describing it as an issue of conscience. Creighton’s Fine Gael colleague in Dublin South East, Eoghan Murphy, whose position differs from Creighton’s and the bishops’, earlier called for a free vote, arguing that a whip would “weaken the decision”. It’s an idea that should be considered on its merits and not in terms of those advocating it.
Abortion is an issue on which deputies should be entitled to vote without party whip constraints, not just because it is a question of life or death but also because it is an issue on which opinions differ as much within the parties as between. It is one of those issues around which every effort should be made to build consensus.
It is impossible to do that within all political parties and therefore the consensus is best built among deputies across parties. It is not an issue on which deputies should be forced to vote in conflict with their own firmly held beliefs.
A free vote on the abortion legislation, more frequent free votes on other social and economic issues and a less rigid whip system would be a healthy political development. As it currently operates, the whip system distorts the relationship between our executive and parliamentary branches. It concentrates power in the cabinet because ministers know they are almost guaranteed a Dáil majority.