Fine Gael far from alone in facing a revolt against party discipline

Free vote in Fianna Fáil sees most Oireachtas members oppose views of Micheál Martin

More than two-thirds of the Fianna Fáil party in the Oireachtas have voted against the position of their leader. Photograph: Eric Luke

More than two-thirds of the Fianna Fáil party in the Oireachtas have voted against the position of their leader. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sat, Jul 6, 2013, 13:00

The hard line taken by Enda Kenny to enforce discipline in Fine Gael on the abortion legislation manifests a ruthless streak that lurks behind his affable personality.

That should come as no surprise, as he would not be Taoiseach today if he did not have the toughness to survive almost a decade in opposition when he was widely denigrated inside as well as outside his party.

His determination to crush opposition to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill stems from the calculation that any wavering on the legislation could have undermined his Government.

The events of the past week have justified his judgment that a softer line with the internal opponents of the legislation could have thrown the Coalition into chaos by this stage.

The revolt of four Fine Gael TDs out of 76 on the second stage of the Bill stands in sharp contrast to the position in Fianna Fáil, where more than two-thirds of the parliamentary party voted against the line adopted by their party leader, Micheál Martin.

The scale of the Fianna Fáil revolt arose from the fact that no whip was applied. Martin allowed a free vote on the Bill, not because he was suddenly persuaded that his TDs should be allowed to follow the dictates of their conscience, but because he knew that an attempt to impose the whip would have split his party.

Four or five Fianna Fáil TDs made it clear during the internal debate on the Bill that they would have to vote against it come what may. Given the party’s fragile state, with just 19 TDs in the Dáil, that would have spelled an end to any prospect of recovery. The pragmatic response was to allow a free vote and keep everybody inside the tent.

It was a real shock, though, that 13 of his 19 TDs took the opposite line to their leader. There are strong suspicions in Leinster House that in the end political calculation and not just conscience played a significant part in determining the number of Fianna Fáil TDs who voted against.

A free vote in Fine Gael could have resulted in something similar. It is still unclear how many rebels there will ultimately be in the party but it seems as if the maximum will be seven or eight with the minimum five.

Party sources believe that if there was a free vote the number opposing the legislation could have been between 20 and 30 with Fine Gael TDs being stampeded in the same manner as their Fianna Fáil colleagues. A revolt on that scale could have undermined the Bill and put severe stress on the Coalition. Politically that was a risk Kenny could not afford to take.

In the past week events in Portugal have demonstrated just how quickly political instability can have direct consequences for a country’s economic wellbeing. While the crisis in Portugal is directly related to its government’s economic policies the country’s capacity to exit its bailout depends on having a government with a secure majority.

When that was threatened, Portugal’s borrowing costs rose rapidly to unsustainable levels.

They came down a little when the Government showed it might have the capacity to weather the crisis but it was a warning about the potential impact of political instability, not just for Portugal but the whole euro zone.

The reason Ireland is on target to exit the bailout stems from the rock-solid majority that underpins the Government. A rift between the Coalition parties at this stage could undo all the hard work done to reach the troika targets.

For those who regard the abortion legislation as a matter of conscience, the question of political stability is not the main issue, but then again it can be difficult to determine where conscience ends and political considerations begin. The American writer Ambrose Bierce once defined politics as “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles”. That could apply equally to both sides of the argument on the abortion legislation.

While Kenny has kept the number of dissenters down to manageable proportions by his tough line he may have to review that stance over time in order to avoid damaging the long-term interests of Fine Gael. The four TDs who voted against the second stage of the Bill have already been turfed out of their offices, lost their places on committees and told they will not be running as Fine Gael candidates next time around.

Minister of State Lucinda Creighton seems certain to join them and there could be another one or two more when the report stage of the Bill is taken on Wednesday. The same disciplinary procedures will apply and the question will then arise as to what action the dissenting TDs will then take.

A lot will depend on whether they see any future for themselves in Fine Gael. If they don’t they could be tempted into joining the technical group in the Dáil or even forming a new party.

It is unlikely that the Fine Gael rebels would find the prospect of joining the technical group very attractive, but if they want speaking time they may have no other option. They can’t go off and form another technical group as Dáil standing orders permit only one. However, if there are seven of them and they band together to form a new party, they could get speaking rights in the Dáil.

However, it is difficult to see seven expelled Fine Gael TDs making common cause on issues apart from abortion, never mind engaging in the long and expensive process of forming a new party and getting it registered. Most of them would much prefer to return to the Fine Gael fold.

After taking the tough line in advance of the vote and getting the result he wanted, Kenny will be urged by people in his party to soften his stance and, in due course, to allow back those who want to return. That appears a more likely option than the emergence of a new party.

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