Dáil abortion debate showed our parliament at its best
Many deputies had struggled with their decision and were trying to convince others
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