Introduction of free votes a maturing development in Irish politics

Noel Whelan: TDs and Senators will have to stand by their decisions in abortion debate

Leo Varadkar: whatever about his views on abortion, it seems the Taoiseach  has changed his views on the merits of allowing free votes

Leo Varadkar: whatever about his views on abortion, it seems the Taoiseach has changed his views on the merits of allowing free votes

 

In June 2013, Taoiseach Enda Kenny rejected suggestions that the party whip should not be imposed in the vote on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. Indeed, he sent out the message that Fine Gael Oireachtas members who voted against the Bill would immediately lose ministerial office or committee chairmanships. They would also be thrown out of the parliamentary party, and risked not being selected as candidates for the following election.

The episode appeared to represent a dramatic tightening of the control which the party leadership sought to exert over party members in the Oireachtas. As a result a number of Deputies who took a principled stand against the Bill, including minister of state for European affairs Lucinda Creighton, lost the whip and their office, before being cold-shouldered out of the Fine Gael party altogether.

The range of voices calling at the time for parties to allow their TDs and Senators to have a free vote on abortion was very wide. Both Breda O’Brien and myself made the argument from different perspectives on this page. So too did many (though not all) of the academics then campaigning for political reform.

The Catholic Bishop of Dromore, Dr John McAreavey, called for a free vote, arguing that issues such as abortion should not come down to “purely party politics”.

The Church of Ireland Gazette editorial argued that “abortion is a subject that involves deeply conscientious and religious feelings, which manifestly qualify it for a free vote among legislators”.

Conscience

At the time Fianna Fáil made a decision to a allow a free vote in accordance with conscience on the matter, in part because Micheál Martin could not carry his parliamentary party for his preferred position of supporting the legislation.

Then, as now, Sinn Féin insisted that TDs follow the party whip, and the party’s able Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín lost a committee chairmanship and was suspended from the parliamentary party for six months for voting against the legislation. A Sinn Féin party spokesperson told the Journal.ie: “If an elected member votes against the party policy there must be consequences.”

In 2013, the then Fine Gael chief whip Paul Kehoe warned of how “opening the floodgates to free votes” would undermine the functioning of government.

Among the most trenchant opponents of the idea of a free vote on abortion in 2013 was then health minister and now Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. In a piece he penned for the Sunday Independent on June 23rd that year, he wrote: “It is suggested by some commentators that parliamentarians freed of the whip would vote according to their conscience or, where their conscience does not override it, would make an objective decision having considered all the facts. That’s hogwash. It’s just not how politics works.”

Lobby groups

Saying that the rigid whip system had served us well since the time of Parnell, Varadkar warned ominously that a free vote “would increase the influence of the loudest and best organised lobby groups, who would target TDs one by one until they promised their support for a particular proposal”.

His was an absolutist view which contrasted starkly with many Fine Gael colleagues, including then backbencher now Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy and Dublin MEP Brian Hayes.

Whatever about his views on abortion, it seems Varadkar has changed his views on the merits of allowing free votes. Far from making the debate more noisy or difficult as Varadkar had once argued, allowing a free vote on abortion has contributed to transforming the parliamentary atmosphere around the issue.

The fact that the two main parties are allowing a free vote on the matter, and that we have so many Independents in the Dáil who will also, of course, make an individual choice, has contributed to changing the tone and nature of the debate.

Of the 21 members of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, 16 were free to make their own decision on how to vote, including the three who voted against repeal.

The free vote means that both Varadkar and Martin can make their case for supporting repeal based on evidence in open Dáil debates instead of having to spend weeks corralling and cajoling colleagues behind a rigid party position or punishing those who disagree with them.

Research and analyse

The free vote also means that individual TDs and Senators are required to research, analyse and come to a view on the issue themselves. They are then required in local media or national parliament to justify and explain their position and any changes in it.

Far from being “hogwash”, the introduction of free votes has been a maturing development in Irish politics.

In the words of political historian Peter Richards, “when the whips are off, parliament has a new vitality”.

More of the same, please.

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