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.