Whips should be set aside to allow free vote on abortion


One of the few substantial innovations in parliamentary reform introduced so far in the current Dáil was the establishment of an Oireachtas Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions.

Among the committee’s strengths is the fact that it must be chaired by an Opposition politician. The task was given by Sinn Féin to their new Meath West deputy Peadar Tóibín and it was refreshing to hear him speaking with such enthusiasm a few months ago on radio about the comm- ittee and his ambitious plans for its work.

It is a great pity, therefore, that Tóibín will not see this work through. This week he was removed as chairman by party leader Gerry Adams, not because he proved wanting in the role but because he refused to vote with the party on a recent motion calling for the introduction of abortion legislation. Tóibín’s relatively strong anti-abortion views closely reflect his party’s position in the Northern Ireland Assembly but are at variance with its more liberal stance south of the Border.

Similarly, it would be a great pity if Lucinda Creighton, an effective Minister of State for European Affairs about to play a central role during the Irish presidency of the European Union, were to lose that position in circumstances where she found herself voting against the proposed legislation. Her views on abortion reflect Fine Gael’s position at the last general election but that position has changed.

The dilemma facing Tóibín and Creighton is just the latest consequence of the Oireachtas’s overly rigid whip system.

Issue of conscience

On Wednesday the Catholic bishops called for a free vote on the abortion legislation, describing it as an issue of conscience. Creighton’s Fine Gael colleague in Dublin South East, Eoghan Murphy, whose position differs from Creighton’s and the bishops’, earlier called for a free vote, arguing that a whip would “weaken the decision”. It’s an idea that should be considered on its merits and not in terms of those advocating it.

Abortion is an issue on which deputies should be entitled to vote without party whip constraints, not just because it is a question of life or death but also because it is an issue on which opinions differ as much within the parties as between. It is one of those issues around which every effort should be made to build consensus.

It is impossible to do that within all political parties and therefore the consensus is best built among deputies across parties. It is not an issue on which deputies should be forced to vote in conflict with their own firmly held beliefs.

A free vote on the abortion legislation, more frequent free votes on other social and economic issues and a less rigid whip system would be a healthy political development. As it currently operates, the whip system distorts the relationship between our executive and parliamentary branches. It concentrates power in the cabinet because ministers know they are almost guaranteed a Dáil majority.

Instead of the mandate flowing from the parliamentary party membership upwards, the whip system means party leaders in government dictate down.

Some of the strongest opposition to a free vote on the abortion legislation has come from the supposedly liberal side. Much of this has been voiced as concern that a free vote would expose deputies and Senators to intense pressure – especially, it is argued, from fringe anti-abortion groups that have been abusive in the past.

Abuse already apparent

The suggestion that directly elected politicians need a party whip to shield them from pressure is patronising. It also ignores that Independent parliamentarians, of whom there are a record number in the current Dáil and Seanad, manage to make up their own minds although subject to the same pressures. This time around it is sadly already apparent – not least from death threats to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and some of the “pro-choice” language on Twitter – that the fringe anti-abortions organisations are not the only ones capable of being abusive.

Requiring deputies and Senators to make and justify their individual decisions would engage them directly on the issue and with their electorate and that is the purpose of representative democracy.

Some weeks ago Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin correctly argued that until now there had not been a majority in the Oireachtas to implement the Supreme Court’s X case judgment.

A number of factors have contributed to this change in parliamentary arithmetic. Fianna Fáil shrank in the February 2011 election. The doubling of Labour seats and the growth of Sinn Féin and left-of-centre Independents means there are more votes for legislating in relation to the X case. February 2011 also saw the election of a substantial cohort of what might be viewed as Christian Democrat Fine Gael deputies but overall the party in this Dáil contains a quiet majority with a middle-ground position on this issue.

I suspect that if the legislation is framed carefully and provides for abortion on grounds of suicide threat but in a manner which reassures voters that it would not become the means of dramatically increasing the availability of abortion then the Bill would pass comfortably on a free vote in both Houses. Doing it that way would give rise to a better-quality debate and a better-quality decision than one imposed by party whips.

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