Breakaway will have lasting consequences for Fine Gael and the party system
Opinion: Kenny was right on the legislation but his decision to flex his muscles in the party was a strange one
Lucinda Creighton: frequently spoken of as a potential leader of Fine Gael. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Any list of the most impressive Irish politicians of 2013 has to include Lucinda Creighton.
This weekend last December, Creighton began a frantic six-month schedule of meetings and travel as part of the Irish presidency of the European Union. As minister for European affairs she was central to the politics and lawmaking of the EU for the first half of 2013. All who worked with her acknowledged her grasp of the issues, her forensic understanding of the European legislative framework, her capacity to chair or contribute to important deliberations and to communicate about them afterwards.
It was an impressive six months of accomplishments for a young politician who had already proved one of the better junior ministers even before the presidency began. Indeed, as a female in her early 30s, reaching the rank of minister of State was itself a considerable achievement in our political system, which is overwhelmingly dominated by older males.
Notwithstanding her previously uncomfortable relationship with Enda Kenny, Creighton’s work as minister for European affairs meant she was a contender for even higher ministerial office in any reshuffle. If denied promotion then, she seemed destined anyhow for greater things in the party, and was frequently spoken of as a potential party leader.
Twelve months later Creighton is not only out of office but she is out of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, and her status as a future member and candidate for Fine Gael seems uncertain.
It is worth reflecting on how this came about. It happened not because of some ministerial mistake on her part, or some political or personal scandal or controversy. It happened because she wilfully effected the loss of her ministerial office by voting in defiance of her party on an issue which for her was one of principle.
Resignations from office on a policy issue are a very rare phenomenon in the history of Irish politics.
Handful of resignations
Among the handful of such events was Noel Browne’s resignation from the first inter-party government in April 1951, when his ministerial colleagues failed to support his Mother and Child primary healthcare scheme. In December 1983 the former Labour party leader, Frank Cluskey, resigned as a minister from the Fine Gael-Labour coalition because of that government’s refusal to fully nationalise Dublin Gas.
Ministers or ministers of State have of course on occasion resigned over a constituency issue, the most recent example being Westmeath deputy Willie Penrose’s decision to give up his minister of State position with sitting rights at Cabinet in protest at the government closure of Mullingar barracks.
More notable in the current Dáil term was Róisín Shortall’s resignation as Minister of State at the Department of Health in protest at how the locations of Government-supported primary care centres were to be prioritised.
Creighton’s resignation was unusual in that it arose both from a national issue and one arising from outside of her portfolio.
She lost ministerial office because she was one of five Fine Gael deputies and two Senators who voted against the party whip on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill in July. Most in the country, an overwhelming majority in Dublin South East and large sections of the national media disagree with how she voted on the legislation, but many admire her for having the courage to do it.
In reality, the passage of this Bill into law was not as dramatic a legal development as either its proponents or it opponents portrayed it. It happened in the emotionally charged atmosphere after the death of Savita Halappanavar and it addressed legislatively an issue avoided by politicians for decades. However, as a piece of legislation it did no more than codify the legal situation that had already existed since the X case.
Assisted by an expert report recommending the legislative approach and by opinion poll research supporting the moderate move, Enda Kenny wisely led from the front in advancing the legislation with his Minister James Reilly. For some peculiar reason, however, Kenny also sought to use it as an occasion to flex internal party muscle. He not only imposed a three-line whip but repeatedly threatened any party members who proposed to vote against the Bill that they would not be selected as a party candidate for the next election.
The Taoiseach was lauded by many political commentators, at least initially, for this hard man stance, as well as by those more liberal on the policy issue itself. It was all so unnecessary since the legislation would have passed comfortably anyhow and a more flexible approach of allowing government deputies to deviate from government policy on a social issue is now established practice in most similar parliamentary systems.
It is curious in many ways that the parliamentary fallout from the passage of the abortion legislation occasioned the most significant shifts in political personnel of the year. It was followed in September by the decision of Creighton, three other deputies and two Senators excluded from the Fine Gael parliamentary party to brand themselves together as the Reform Alliance and to assert differing positions from the party on other issues.
The exit from the bailout and the emergence of economic recovery undoubtedly constitute the political events of 2013 that will have most lasting political implications. However, the resignation of Creighton and her colleagues is also an event that we will look back on as having an enduring political impact.
Where these developments take the former Fine Gael deputies, and where they lead Lucinda, are known unknowns between now and the next election. There is no doubt, however, that this breakaway will have enduring political consequences for Fine Gael and perhaps for the party system more generally.