Britain’s calm and considered euthanasia debate was a model

“Public debates in Ireland are all-too-often marked by groupthink and a desire for conformity”, writes Michael Kelly

British MPs voted at the weekend to reject assisted suicide by an overwhelming majority. The debate was marked by passionate interventions on both sides of the debate.

It’s worth having a look at the Hansard – the official record of debates in Britain’s House of Commons – to witness the high level of the discourse. It was a genuinely thoughtful and serious debate where, regardless of a legislator’s point of view, respect was at the heart of the exchanges.

It was a far cry from the drink-fuelled shenanigans while the Dáil was embarking on an all-night sitting to push through the current abortion legislation which, as readers of The Irish Catholic are well aware, permits abortion right up to birth, regardless of what supporters of the law have tried to argue.

That abortion debate became infamous for what the media dubbed ‘lapgate’ when Fine Gael’s Tom Barry pulled fellow Cork politician Aine Collins into his lap while the House was discussing legislation to permit the deliberate ending of unborn human life.

Mr Barry admitted he had been drinking, but “not excessively” in his own words. Records later revealed that nearly €7,000 was spent in the two bars located in Leinster House during the day of the abortion debate.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams later spoke of the omnipresent smell of alcohol in the chamber during the debate and expressed his view that some TDs were drunk. That debate was also marked by name-calling, caricatures and petty smears. Hardly the finest moment in the life of a national parliament.

Of course, TDs were also obliged by the party whip to vote in favour of abortion. Precious few resigned and risked their political futures by refusing to bend the knee and instead voted with their conscience. Quite rightly, British MPs were permitted to speak (and vote) according to their individual conscience on the Assisted Dying Bill. The British system tends not to impose a rigid party whip on MPs when it comes to sensitive moral issues.

This is in stark contrast with the way the three-line whip is imposed on Dáil deputies on virtually everything from dog breeding to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Supporters of the current rigid whip system insist that it is necessary to ensure stable government. Yet, British MPs regularly defeat their own government on contentious issues and things continue as normal. 

In Germany, for example, it is constitutionally prohibited for a party to try and impose a whip on members of the Bundestag. But, then, Germany’s recent history gives ample witness to the destructive power of a party machine imposing its will to the detriment of individual conscience.

Public debates in Ireland are all-too-often marked by groupthink and a desire for conformity. But, I wonder to what extent what passed for ‘traditional Irish Catholicism’ has to take some share of the responsibility here?

Irish Catholicism, for all of its greatness, suffered from a vacuum of rigorous debate and discussion. Critical thinking and inquiry were looked at with suspicion rather than welcomed as a path towards truth. One theologian has observed, perceptively, that “the moral standards of Irish Catholics had been formed, less by conscience, than by obedience to authority”.

That authority, of course, was once the Church. That authority now is the party whip and, perhaps to a greater extent, media commentators. While a politician in the 1950s may have feared a mention from a pulpit, in 21st Century Ireland, a belt of a crozier from one of the secular opinion writers is a much more dreaded prospect.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.