In the defence of the whip


It’s all a bit too easy to caricature the political whip system as one of the flawed elements of our politics that contributes most to its dysfunctionality: an attack on freedom of conscience, a mindless instrument of party boss control, of domination of the legislature by the executive, a substitute for critical thinking for sheep-like public representatives ... Free the legislators to think and vote for themselves, the argument goes, and you liberate an untapped potential and have a real chance of holding an executive to account and of giving the Dail and Seanad a real purpose. And there is indeed a case for doing so in the Oireachtas committees.

But ending, or radically diluting the whip system, has become a central cause for some of our political reformers, particularly of those who have no time for political parties – rightly ignored, they tell us, by our Constitution – and whose ideal politician is, it would seem, an Independent, untainted by grubby party affiliation.

In the real world, however, political parties and the discipline of whipping that they almost inevitably entail, are crucial to the smooth functionining of government. They mobilise and maintain a majority on which a modicum of policy continuity on the part of a government depends – the alternative is the gridlock of the US Congress – and provide a means by which voters can distinguish between policy options at election time.

There is nothing intrinsically undemocratic about groups marshalling their support in this way, and, like it or not, the majority of public representatives are elected predominantly because of the party flag they fly, not because of their personal views. The requirement to accept party discipline and whipping, as many TDs will acknowledge gratefully, also provides protection to them from undue pressure from interest groups to vote particular ways, whether out of local Nimby concerns about a motorway or a hospital closure, or indeed from well-organised anti-abortion campaigners.

And what about issues of conscience, we hear the anti-abortion lobby cry? Those who would substitute the church’s whip for the party whip? Catholic legislators fulfilling their moral responsibilities as Catholics “even if,” as the Bishops’ statement insisted yesterday, “this means standing above other pressures and party loyalties”. There are issues , they say, that are so fundamental that they go beyond party loyalties. The whips should be lifted.

Their case would be more compelling, however, if what was at stake was indeed “abortion legislation that will fundamentally change the culture of medical practice in Ireland”. It is not, despite what the bishops say. Politicians are being asked to provide a badly needed legal framework for an existing legal reality – the Supreme Court has ruled that abortion is legal. Hardly then a matter of conscience, but of fulfilling their responsibilities as legislators.