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.
An added complication is that the rebels who happen to share similar views on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill are by no means a cohesive unit. Some of them are inveterate opponents of Mr Kenny who were key players in the attempt to remove him as leader in June of 2010.
Others have no animus at all towards the Taoiseach and are genuinely upset to have found themselves in the position of having to oppose him on this legislation.
If he lumps them all in together Mr Kenny would be in danger of creating a unified group who could become the focus of dissent on other issues as the lifetime of the Dáil progresses and further difficult budgetary decisions are made. On the other hand it will be difficult to make fish of one and fowl of the other.
What ultimately happens is likely to hinge on the attitude taken by the rebel TDs over the next year or two. Those who vote consistently with the Government in the Dáil and demonstrate loyalty by supporting its policies in public debate will have an irresistible argument for a return to the party banner by the time of the next election regardless of what has been said over the past few months.
There has also been some speculation about the prospect of some of the rebel TDs forming a new political party. In her Dáil speech on Monday Lucinda Creighton outlined a clear policy of conservative economic principles allied to conservative views on social issues.
This approach has potential appeal for some people disillusioned with the policies of the Coalition. The involvement of sitting TDs with any new party has proved crucial in the past with the obvious example being the Progressive Democrats.
Whether Creighton has any intention of pursuing her political agenda in a new party is not clear. The difficulties in establishing a new party capable of making a serious political impact are enormous, as she and her colleagues know from having watched the fate of the PDs.
In any case it is doubtful if many of the Fine Gael TDs prepared to defy the whip on the abortion legislation have any intention of getting involved in a new party. The fact that 13 of the 19 Fianna Fáil TDs voted against the measure may have eventual political consequences for party leader Micheál Martin, who supported it.