The Government is a victim of its own silly whip rule

In 2013, Fine Gael TDs Lucinda Creighton, Terence Flanagan, and Billy Timmins, along with Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames, were ejected from their parliamentary party after declining to support the Government on what was, for them, a matter of conscience – abortion legislation. Last night, the Government lost two Green TDs – Neasa Hourigan and Patrick Costello – on what was, for them, a matter of conscience – the new National Maternity Hospital.

The irony here is that in neither case were the votes decisive. The 2013 legislation comfortably passed without the support of the rogue Fine Gael TDs. Last night’s Sinn Fein motion on the Maternity Hospital was non-binding and had no legal effect. However, the ejection of the rebels, in both cases, reduces the Government’s majority and leaves it vulnerable.

The Irish political system is unusual – at least in the English-speaking world – for its strict and uncompromising use of the whip. Most parliamentary systems descended from the Westminster model – as ours is – allow a degree of freedom for parliamentarians to make their own choices and decisions. People join political parties, as a general rule, because they agree with most of what that party says, and does – but only a fanatic agrees with their own party 100% of the time.

Most parliamentary systems recognise that fact. Ireland’s does not.

This, in theory, makes the Government stronger: It means that they rarely have to worry about rebellions on issues, since people, fearing for their careers, will generally line up behind the Government even on deeply unpopular votes. It is notable that significant rebellions on issues are so rare that, prior to last nights, the last one was nine years ago.

But in practice, the rules may actually be making Irish Governments weaker. In 2013, Fine Gael lost genuine talent from its parliamentary party, and spawned a (short lived and unsuccessful, but nobody was to know that at the time) new rival grouping seeking support from FG voters. The Green rebellion, meanwhile, reduces the Government’s majority in the Dáil to the bare minimum – 80 TDs out of 159. A sudden death, or another defection, and all of a sudden, they don’t have the votes to govern any more.

A sensible whip system would be much more like that which exists in the UK: The “three line” whip – breaking it means you’re out – is applied only for the really vital things like budgets and so on. On other matters, the Government has to win the support of its own MPs and accept the occasional rebellion on matters of importance to individual members.

Were such a rule in place, defenders of the system will point out, it’s fair to wonder whether the abortion legislation would have passed in 2013, and would the NMH deal be going ahead? It’s possible – not certain, but possible – that the answer to both is “no”. How many FG TDs would have joined the 2013 rebellion had votes of conscience been allowed, and how many Greens would have joined last night? It’s possible that both Governments might have been defeated.

But that’s no bad thing: The point of the Dáil is that TDs are supposedly – in theory – elected to represent their personal views, and those of their constituents. Political parties get no mention in the constitution. They are a creation by people who wish to organise within the system, and they are designed to wield power in part by corrupting the intent of the system. The whip system is designed from the ground up to make it easier for the Government to pass unpopular and controversial laws. Nobody needs a whip system, after all, to pass popular laws.

And why should it be easier to pass unpopular laws? It might be better for Governments if they had to work a little harder for support in the Oireachtas.

Anyway, the Government is now two votes down. Over a motion that had no legally binding status, and which the Government itself did not even oppose (it told people to abstain). That’s remarkably silly. And all because of a system which lacks basic flexibility.

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