Ireland moving in a different direction on votes of conscience

Those who choose to defy the Fine Gael whip may end up losing their livelihoods

 Dessie O’Malley was widely lauded for standing up to Charlie Haughey on a matter of principle. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Dessie O’Malley was widely lauded for standing up to Charlie Haughey on a matter of principle. Photograph: Peter Thursfield


The threat of de-selection as candidates at the next election that was directed at Fine Gael’s rebel TDs this week amounts to a significant tightening of the grip which the whip system has around the neck of our parliament.

On Tuesday Enda Kenny made it “perfectly clear” that anyone who voted against the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill will not be a candidate for Fine Gael in the next election. Not even Charlie Haughey, in his most autocratic phase, would have dared threaten in public to do this to his opponents.

Kenny’s threat was then talked up by brave party apparatchiks speaking - off the record of course - to political correspondents about “grave repercussions” for those who voted against the Bill and how “plans are being drawn up” to make sure the rebels are not selected as party candidates whenever the next election comes.

When Charlie Haughey was leader of Fianna Fáil the leader’s power was much more limited. He could and did seek to bully and harass TDs to vote his way and he could and did cut them off from ministerial office. To exclude them from the parliamentary party however he had to get a specific motion to that effect through the parliamentary party each time. The rules were the same in Fine Gael and Labour at the time. More often than not the party leaders got their way when they proposed such motions for expulsion but sometimes they didn’t and sometimes they didn’t even try.

One of the most celebrated examples of a TD voting on conscience ground was Dessie O’Malley’s action in refusing to join his Fianna Fáil colleagues in opposing the 1985 Family Planning Act. It was in this debate that he gave his famous “I stand by the Republic” speech. O’Malley had already lost the party whip over Northern Ireland policy but was still set to be a Fianna Fáil candidate in the next election. The only way Haughey could stop that was to take the rare step of having the National Executive expel O’Malley from the party itself for “conduct unbecoming”.

O’Malley was widely lauded for having the courage to stand up to the party leadership. His actions were celebrated in columns and editorials in a manner which contrasts starkly with some of the abuse now been heaped on the current Fine Gael rebels. They have similarly disobeyed their party leadership although, of course, they do so from a conservative rather than a liberal perspective.

In the late 1980s and 1990s all of the main parties changed their rules to strengthen the whip system by providing for the automatic expulsion from the parliamentary party of any TD or Senator who voted against the whip. There is no specific period of expulsion provided for however and until now the recalcitrant Deputy or Senator was usually, quietly, readmitted to the parliamentary party at some point before the subsequent election.

Those who disobeyed the Fine Gael whip this week or who might do so next week are not only to be thrown immediately out of the parliamentary party and cut off from appointment even to the, supposedly, independent Dáil committee chairmanships but they are also to face a threat to their very existence in politics and for some therefore to their livelihoods.

Party leaders and party headquarters have always had the capacity to exert some influence on who was selected as a candidate. The national executives of the various parties have the ultimate say on whether to approve candidates. While this power is often used to add candidates I cannot think of any examples where a party’s national executive has, at the insistence of the leader, deselected a candidate chosen by the constituency organisation. This is now what Enda Kenny appears to be suggesting he will do.

There has been a healthy trend towards democratising candidate selection within Irish political parties in recent times. Fine Gael has had ‘one member one vote’ conventions for several elections now. In Fianna Fáil the overcentralisation of candidate selection was one of the reasons for organisational weakness in recent elections and that party has also now adopted one member one vote conventions for all future elections. Touting the notion that the leader should have the power or use his influence to deselect those who dare to vote against the party whip reverses that trend.

As I sought to illustrate here some weeks ago most parliamentary democracies that like Ireland inherited the Westminster model now have well developed precedents for allowing free votes on issues of conscience. The extent to which in this country we have gone in the opposite direction is now all too apparent.

It could be said that those of us who have argued for an easing of the whip system can draw some comfort from the fact that Fianna Fáil as the largest opposition party gave its members a free vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. However, the Fianna Fáil leadership was forced into this position. It is now clear that had he not allowed a free vote, Mícheál Martin himself might have ended up losing the party whip since a two-third majority in his parliamentary party is against the legislation.

Those arguing in favour of a strong whip system often suggest that it ensures that the policies proposed by parties at election time are actually implemented. Ironically the Fine Gael rebels on the abortion issue this week, like Denis Naughton on Roscommon Hospital last year, lost the whip for voting in a manner which most would see as consistent with what Fine Gael promised at the last election. It just illustrates how absurd our parliament has become in allowing itself to be dominated by such a rigid whip system.

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