In anticipation of the drafting of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, I wrote to Taoiseach Enda Kenny. I proffered my opinion that, since the issue could be a matter of conscience for some of our elected representatives, the Bill should be the subject of a free vote in its passage through the Dail. I received the usual two-line acknowledgement from his secretary.
We now know that the party whip is to be imposed and that all members of the Fine Gael and Labour parties in the Dail, will either be compelled to vote in favour of the Bill, or they will be excluded from their respective political parties. If they have a ministerial function they will, almost certainly, be relieved of their ministries. In effect they will have strangled any political ambitions. They will be banished into the wilderness. They must either put up or shut up, and all because they have allowed their consciences to be their guide in what is, essentially, a moral and ethical issue.
For those of us who are apolitical, this imperative raises questions about the unquestioning demands for uncritical loyalty in the party political system. Some years ago, a daughter in Germany was invited to join the Social and Democratic Party. She had already been involved in community and environmental matters, and admired the SDP’s policies. The party also had the added attraction that it was the first to be condemned and prorogued when Hitler came to power, and it played a major part not only in recent governments, but in the re-building and rehabilitation of Germany following World War II.
But in considering the invitation, adn from a perspective of caution, she asked: “How much of my soul do I have to sell?” She was told that in the formulation of policy, there was absolute freedom of discussion and of dissent, but that once the policy had been accepted by a majority, loyalty and support was an essential.
This loyalty is understandable in politics, in organisations, in business. It makes for cohesion. It conserves, rather than dissipating energy. But it assumes the political party, the organisation or the business is not engaged in any harmful or nefarious activity. Or, more importantly, that it does not seriously conflict with a personal deeply-held belief, be it either moral, religious, or social. Membership of a political party should not mean that one has to leave one’s conscience on the doorstep of the party’s office?
Yet that is the only conclusion that can now be arrived at in circumstances where elected representatives will have no choice but to conform to the expediency of party politics, despite the fact that this will probably be the only time in a politician’s life, when they will be faced with such a definitive moral imperative. They will have to take the whip or else! Political oblivion?
This unquestioning, uncritical loyalty to a political party, especially on social issues, may well be unique to Ireland, according to Noel Whelan in his column in “The Irish Times” (issue May 11). It would appear that in many of the world’s democratic parliaments similar to our own, a conscience vote, sometimes described as a “free vote,” has been allowed. In New Zealand, for instance, the party whip has not been applied in legislation on a range of diverse issues, from homosexuality law reform, to compulsory military training. In Canada the same diversity is reflected in passing amendments on the law on the treatment of the national flag, on milk subsidies and on capital punishment. In Britain, the parliament with which we are most familiar via television reports, a free vote was allowed last February on legislation on same-sex marriage.
It must be asked if unchallenged party-political loyalty has served Ireland well, especially in recent decades, and in circumstances which have brought us to where we now are. Did any dedicated member of “the party” seriously ask about planning policies, or the tweaking of these policies? Were any questions raised by the devoted party followers about the behaviour of banks? Or rumours of corruption in high places? Or a building policy which had little relationship to the growth of population? Or, and here the compliance of local authorities has to be questioned, and the quality of developments such as Priory Hall - and other Priory Halls throughout the country, and where unfortunate young couples are now without their homes but still liable for the payment of exorbitant mortgages?
Where were all the voices of the loyal party members? Did they choose deliberate deafness or were they silenced by the threat of derision - and of being called cranks, or “lullahs”? (My apologies to readers for the constant re-appearance of this word in my columns. It is a word which I cannot find in any dictionary and so don’t know how to spell it.) Or did the loyalty clause strangle all common sense, all reasonable analysis? Or was it just the seduction (and corruption) of power?
The proposed legislation on limited abortion, is troubling for most ordinary Irish people. Does it give the necessary protection to mothers, their babies and their doctors, or is it the first step in opening the floodgates on unlimited abortion such as now exists in Britain, where it is estimated that more babies are aborted than are born alive?
These are issues which supersede ordinary everyday politics and economics. They are moral issues and our elected representatives should not have to sacrifice their consciences for the prospect of political survival. A free vote will give them the personal choice of not having to sell their souls.