Party whip system prioritises loyalty at the expense of conscience

TDs risk being cast out for following the stated principles of their parties

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: let it be known he did not intend to legislate for the X case before the last election. Photograph: Reuters

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: let it be known he did not intend to legislate for the X case before the last election. Photograph: Reuters

Sat, Jun 8, 2013, 06:19

Whatever Enda Kenny suffers from, it is not an awareness of irony. This week, he sought to open the debate on the abolition of the Seanad by completely neutering any debate in Fine Gael or Labour.

His justification is that every candidate in the last election was aware of the policy, and the electorate voted on that basis.

Before the last election our pragmatic Taoiseach apparently saw securing pro-life votes as his best chance of achieving an overall majority for Fine Gael. He then had no problem abandoning his own pre-election commitment not to legislate for X.

With regard to abolition of the Seanad, he is muzzling parliamentarians on the grounds that it “is a Government position, it is a Government decision and it is a Government programme”. The current unhealthy concentration of power in the Government is a problem, not a further justification for closing down discussion.

Power was always concentrated to a damaging degree in the cabinet. One does not have to be a fan of the Yes, Minister series to realise that therefore, power is likely to reside in the permanent government, that is, senior civil servants.

This Government has added the refinement that power is now concentrated in the hands of four Ministers – the economic management council – which answers to absentee masters.

The Taoiseach, wishing to close down debate on the Seanad in such an arrogant fashion, is completely consistent with his refusal to grant a free vote on issues of conscience.

Meanwhile, Labour, in the shameful absence of any ability to bring about its economic vision, seems determined to become a one-dimensional party whose only “success” is bringing in abortion.

There was a persistent rumour that with the connivance of the other parties in the Dáil, the Taoiseach hoped to pass this legislation with no vote at all.

Colm Keaveney’s declaration that he could not in conscience vote for what he described as dystopian legislation, followed rapidly by the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party forcing Micheál Martin into a free vote, thankfully put paid to that possibility. Regardless of where people stand on the issue of suicidal intent and abortion, it is hard to fathom why there is such resistance to the idea of conscience votes.

A good leader not only listens to contrarian voices, but actively seeks them out. There was an old saying in ecclesiastical circles, that on becoming a bishop you never again ate a bad dinner, or heard the truth.

We know where that left the church, particularly in relation to child abuse.

There were whistleblowers, including priests, who reported dire conditions in institutions, or expressed concerns about colleagues in parishes. The fact that most of these warnings were ignored left children at continued risk, and rightly triggered fury in the faithful and wider society.

Ironically, the much-defended whip system also prioritises loyalty to the party over personal conscience, and does so through a mixture of carrot and stick, but mostly stick.

Most of the public have only the vaguest idea of what is involved in losing the whip.

One TD described it to me as like being thrown from a moving vehicle. Not only do you lose all connection to party resources, but many of your party colleagues will shun you. Last December in this paper, Róisín Shortall described being ostracised by former senior colleagues.

Your prospects of selection as a candidate at the next election may disappear. You may face accusations of treachery and betrayal and be subject to enormous psychological pressures. In short, the party whip system involves institutionalised bullying.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that virtually every TD who has lost the whip recently has done so for voting in accord with stated core values of his or her party, or election promises. Colm Keaveney voted against cuts to child benefit, Denis Naughten believed the Taoiseach when he said he would not downgrade the hospital in Roscommon – yet these are the people who are punished.

The public bear responsibility for this, too. Why would anyone wish to see someone coerced into voting for a law against his or her conscience?

As outlined recently by Noel Whelan, the parliamentary democracies that most resemble our own all allow free votes.

There will be debate about what constitutes an issue of conscience, and personally, I am sympathetic to the idea that opposing a cut to child benefit, or cronyism in the allocation of scarce resources, are also issues of conscience.

However, if anything qualifies, issues of life and death must. Attempting to blackmail people into voting against their consciences on something like abortion in the case of threatened suicide should be repugnant to everyone.

In the absence of a free vote, all TDs and Senators will have to ask themselves whether they can live with voting for a Bill without time limits, that will result in the taking of innocent human lives, all in the absence of any evidence whatsoever of benefit to a single woman?

It might restore some dignity and respect to Irish politics if many of our parliamentarians find that they cannot in conscience vote for something so manifestly wrong and unjust.

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