The over-rigid party whip system is a cancer in Irish politics

The over-rigid party whip system is a cancer in Irish politics
Only the Irish political system makes 100% agreement on everything a condition of full membership, writes Larry Donnelly


Last month, the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill was passed by the Dáil by a margin of 90 votes in favour and 15 against. Twelve TDs abstained. The bill has also passed in the Seanad (27-5).

It will soon take its place in the statute books. For those of us who believe that the legislation, in allowing unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks, goes too far, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Yet that is democracy, and the verdict of the citizenry on the referendum on the Eighth Amendment was emphatic.

Before the Bill reached the Seanad, Senator Michael McDowell stated that none of his colleagues – no matter how deeply held or, put another way, provocative their convictions about abortion might be – should be shouted down or rushed in discussing the issues. Things did, however, get combative and fiery in the upper house.


Proceedings in the Dáil did not live up to this desirable standard either. A minority of deputies on both sides were deeply personal in making caustic remarks to their opponents. This was wholly uncalled for and very unfortunate. Some with pro-life/anti-abortion views seemingly wished to re-litigate an already decided case in what could be argued was an affront to the clear will of the people. Meanwhile, the triumphalism and manifest enmity directed by some pro-choicers at their colleagues who have a different opinion was unedifying, even offensive.

One politician who, notwithstanding his heartfelt position on abortion, has always been unerringly polite and respectful to those who do not concur is Peadar Tóibín. In one sense, he is an unlikely champion of the right to life for unborn children. A progressive and a Sinn Féin member for many years, these days there are sadly few observers anywhere who see his outlook as being consistent with support for social and economic justice across the board.

He never made his view on abortion a secret, nor did he ever apologise for it. Simultaneously, he was happy to embrace Sinn Féin’s leftist policy platform and to vote accordingly as an elected representative of the party. In his own words: “From a young age, I have been inspired by the selfless sacrifice of generations of republicans from Wolfe Tone to Bobby Sands. I joined Sinn Féin when it was not easy to join Sinn Féin. In the intervening years, I have poured all my energy into building a movement to achieve a united Ireland and economic justice.”

But despite having had an agreement in the past with the party’s leadership that he could vote against liberalising abortion laws without fear of reprisal, Mr Tóibín was sanctioned by his party for opposing the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill in 2013 and was facing a further six month suspension for his refusal to back the current Bill. As such, and subsequent to unsuccessful attempts to reach an internal resolution, he walked away from Sinn Féin and is now seeking to form a new political movement built upon his overarching philosophy.


It is worth taking a step back for one moment to evaluate how completely absurd this is. In order to be an elected member in good standing of a political party, one has to toe the line on each and every single issue, with precious few exceptions.

The politician’s own free will – keeping in mind that her candidacy might fly under the banner of a party, but that she is still elected in her own right – comes second to the dictates of the leadership and/or majority rule of the rank and file. The party whip system, applied more rigidly in Ireland than in just about any other country with a parliamentary system of governance, is pernicious and a cancer on our politics.

What other organisation makes 100% agreement on everything a condition of full membership? Political parties are, or at least should be, large and diverse groupings of committed people who unite around a set of broadly drawn goals and principles. Why on earth should a divergence on a single issue be grounds for deeming a member of that grouping persona non grata? It is both contrary to democratic ideals and to sensible politicking.

On the former, how dare the leaders of parties deem obedience a fundamental virtue and having the courage of one’s convictions a mortal sin? On the latter, how is it electorally beneficial to effectively announce to a significant segment of the population that they are not wanted? Mindful that politics may be the toughest business of them all and routinely chews up and spits out idealists, there is a feasible, albeit uninspiring, answer to the first. Absent a pressing need to repel a genuine threat to the state, I cannot divine a reasonable response to the second.

I have been a trenchant critic of the whip system since I moved to Ireland in 2001 and started following its politics avidly. Defenders of the whip cite the need for party discipline; the potential for a breakdown of cohesion; the notion that voters tick boxes in general elections for parties and platforms, not their standard bearers; and the dysfunction of my native United States, where the whip system is extremely light touch.

But parties in other parliamentary democracies do not impose the whip remotely as stringently as parties here typically do, and the consequences have not been dire. Most men and women I know vote for a candidate first, with party label a usually distant second, as the popularity of independents of all stripes would partly suggest. And the money-ridden US Congress is an easy target and certainly not a model to emulate. Crucially, I am not advocating that parties should abandon their use of the whip altogether.

That said, Irish political parties should allow far more freedom than they do now. Not doing so encourages their elected members to focus on the ‘parish pump,’ in that it is the primary means of appealing to their constituents as individuals, and discourages them from engaging in national and international policy development, when they will have to vote as they are told ultimately, regardless of their own possibly well-developed and nuanced stances or the best interests of their localities.


It is to be welcomed that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael allowed their Oireachtas members a free vote on abortion legislation this time. Fianna Fáil’s hand was undeniably forced on this score and Fine Gael learned a painful lesson in 2013 when it lost the hugely capable Lucinda Creighton and others in the wake of their votes on this issue.

And lest anyone think my disgust with the whip system stems solely from my own view on abortion, I would be articulating the exact same points if a pro-life/anti-abortion party sought to impose a whip on its pro-choice elected officials.

In short, as I have written before, nothing can ripen the rot at the core of the party whip as it is applied here. Never is this as evident as when the representatives we elect are not free to vote their conscience on abortion. Other commentators accept this as something of a necessary evil in Irish politics. I will forever find it unfathomable.

Larry Donnelly, is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a media commentator on politics, law and current affairs in Ireland and the US. He is on Twitter @LarryPDonnelly

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