Dáil abortion debate showed our parliament at its best

Many deputies had struggled with their decision and were trying to convince others


Those of us who while away the hours listening to debates within the Dáil could not help but notice the contrast between two debates last week. The first concerned the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill; the second the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill.

The debate on the Inquiries Bill went as one normally expects. The result of any vote is never in doubt because of the Government’s huge majority and the use of the party whip system. There was little or nothing to play for in the debate as there was no one to be convinced or swayed. The debate was, as usual, used as an opportunity to score political points, primarily for the sake of the press and their party members’ twitter accounts.

The nature and feel of the debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was very different. It was reported that senior members within Fine Gael were a little irritated by the contributions of their deputies, with one commenting that “it felt like a free vote”. He was right, it did.

Throughout the debate there was a real sense of something to be played for. There were deputies in the chamber who, whip or no whip, were still reaching towards their final decision on how to vote. Contributions to the debate for the most part lacked the usual qualities of political pantomime that we are so used to.

Instead, many were aimed at setting out their reasons for supporting or opposing the Bill. Many, going from their contributions, had struggled with the decision. Many were attempting to convince others of their point of view.

Parliament at its best
This was our parliament approaching its best in many respects. It’s a shame we don’t see more of it. Instead of being simply another scripted debate, it became close, dangerously close, to being a deliberation of the issues involved.

This particular piece of legislation has made topical the issue of what should determine a politician’s vote within parliament. It is not the first time in the current Dáil that the issue has come up and it is part of the ongoing general debate on political reform.

The discussion surrounding this question has largely been framed in terms of conscience, party loyalty, the party whip and, to a limited extent, the opinion of the electorate.

Political parties are seen by many as a problem in terms of the application of the party whip. However, the question of what should determine a political representative’s vote has arisen in the past – in one case just prior to the birth of what we would now recognise as political parties.

In 1774, Edmund Burke, one of the finest parliamentarians ever, was elected for Bristol. At that time, the radicals of his day argued that an MP should be bound by instructions from his electorate on how to vote in parliament. Burke rejected this, relying on two main arguments.

The first will be familiar to us in our current debate – the dictates of conscience. Noting that it is best that a public representative “live in the strictest union” with their constituents, he argues that this can only go so far. “But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living . . . Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

His second point is the more interesting of the two. He argues that parliament ought to be a place of deliberation where representatives hear and consider argument and then decide. This deliberative aspect is crucial to Burke as a means to arrive at prudent and wise legislation.

In his own words: “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain . . . parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.”

Honest and vigorous deliberation
The excessive focus on conscience within our contemporary debate misses Burke’s last point. Conscience is only one of multiple sources that should inform our public representatives’ motivations to vote: these must also include their various parties’ policies, the views of their electorate and the evidence laid before them. What is critical is that their judgment on how to vote is based on an honest and vigorous deliberation of issue. This can only take place outside of the dead hand of the party whips.

The flashes of real deliberation visible on Monday of last week must become more common. Political reform cannot merely concern our political systems but must address our political practice and culture. Parties will have to take the plunge in abandoning the absolute party whip system. It will improve the quality of deliberation in the Dáil and is necessary if we are to see improvements in the quality of our legislation and public policy. The future quality of our governance demands this challenge be met.

Alan Hynes is a parliamentary assistant to Colm Keaveney TD. He writes here in a personal capacity

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