Number of dissenting Fine Gael TDs will inevitably increase
The final tally of rebel TDs will not be fewer than five and could be as high as 10
Billy Timmins, one of four Fine Gael TDs who defied their party whip to vote against the second stage of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The first phase of the Fine Gael rebellion on the abortion legislation took place last night, with four TDs voting against the second stage of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.
The full scale of the problem facing Taoiseach Enda Kenny will not become clear for another week until the vote on the report and final stage of the Bill next Wednesday, but the number of dissenting TDs will inevitably increase.
The committee stage of the Bill, which began last night and continues today, will not provide much further enlightenment about the political consequences of the legislation.
Only the 15 members of the health committee are entitled to put down amendments and none of the Fine Gael rebels is on it. While Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher has put down amendments on behalf of some of his TDs who are opposed to the Bill, he felt able to take that approach because his party is having a free vote.
Show their hand
On the Fine Gael side it will not be until the report stage of the Bill next Wednesday that all of the TDs with reservations about the legislation will finally have to show their hand.
The final tally of rebel TDs will not be fewer than five and could be as high as 10. On top of that there will certainly be a few rebels in the Seanad bringing the total number outside the parliamentary party into the teens. The question is how those TDs and Senators who lose the whip will behave when they are free of party discipline. Much will depend on whether they see a future for themselves in Fine Gael.
The Taoiseach has been adamant that TDs who defy the whip will not simply lose the whip for a year or two before returning to the fold, as has happened frequently in all the major parties in the past.
The clear implication is that they will be cast out into the wilderness not only for the remainder of this Dáil’s life but forced to contest the next election as Independents.
The example of Roscommon TD Denis Naughten who lost the whip in the early days of the 31st Dáil for voting against the Government over his local hospital and is now an Independent is often pointed to as an example of what happens to TDs who defy the leadership.
In the cold
The question, though, is whether Mr Kenny can afford the political downside of putting eight or 10 of his TDs out in the cold.