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
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.