On July 1st I delivered a speech in the Dáil at the Second Stage of the abortion bill. I took the opportunity to elaborate my concerns about abortion in a general societal sense, as well as focusing on specific aspects of the proposed Bill which I considered, and still consider, to be deeply flawed.
Interestingly for me, the one phrase I used which was picked up and referenced repeatedly by media and political colleagues was “group think”. This seemed to touch a raw nerve and some were apparently very angry about it. My speech was incorrectly picked up as singling out members of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party for participating in group think. This is not what i said.
What I said in fact, was that group think is a negative feature in society, in the media and in political life. Increasingly we are all supposed to think and speak the same way. There is less and less room in this country for a diversity of opinion, for real and meaningful debate and for genuine analysis. We are all supposed to swim with the tide on every occasion. I consider this dangerous. I am certain that this is dangerous for our democracy.
This was a long and difficult week, particularly for many in the Fine Gael party. Five of us argued for the right to express an alternative (though previously entirely accepted) view on this vitally important piece of legislation. We lost the internal battle to have our voices heard and our consciences respected. This is not a good thing for the democratic process in this State.
Much of the commentary in the aftermath of Thursday’s vote confirmed to me that our media perpetuates the blind group think which prevailed and contributed to the economic collapse in this country. I listened to the Friday Panel on Today with Pat Kenny. The level of analysis or understanding of what is happening in our shambolic Parliamentary system was alarming.
A commentator from the Irish Times seemed only capable of understanding the events of the week in terms of “strength” “power” and “crushing opponents”. To him is was just a numbers game. He was entirely uninterested in the substance of the disagreement, or the fact that an important viewpoint was ignored or “whipped into line”.
He seemed to believe that the only issue at hand was the fact that “only five” TDs had voted against the legislation and this was somehow a great victory for the Government, its senior figures and Fine Gael. This is a sad and shallow analysis, which ignores the fundamental questions of democracy which were raised thought the last few weeks when elected Members of our Parliament were, in many instances, coerced and cajoled into voting for legislation they clearly considered to be faulty and against their better judgement.
My colleague Michelle Mulherin summed this up. She has unfairly been subjected to much criticism in recent days. I would defend her stridently, because she had the courage to tell the truth. I understand completely the dilemma she found herself in. I was there too. I took a different decision, by voting against the legislation. She clearly wrestled with her ultimate decision and eventually decided to vote for it. She did so to avoid being “booted out” of Fine Gael, her party. I felt sick to the pit of my stomach listening to her speech in the Dáil Chamber – out of sadness for her, and the choice she has clearly been forced to take to avoid expulsion. There is something so, so wrong with this. Citizens of this country ought to be concerned at the words uttered by Michelle. They genuinely gave me a deep sense of foreboding.
In every other modern western democracy that I have studied, public representatives are not and would never be, forced to choose between their conscience and their party. That is worth considering and reflecting upon. This includes Australia, New Zeland, the USA, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and many, many more. In my investigations I could not find any other democratic country on this planet that forces people to vote against their conscience. Ireland has the dubious distinction of standing alone in its denial of conscience. This is not something I am proud of. Nobody should be.
The great democrat and peace maker Mahatma Ghandi said “In matters of conscience, the law of the majority has no place”. This is correct. History has taught us what savagery and crimes against humanity can occur, when people abandon their conscience, for the sake of the quiet life, or worse, to satisfy personal ambition. Our State should guard against this, rather than try to normalise it. And we as citizens should demand that this be so.
Some might suggest that this issue of the imposition of the “three line whip” is only coming into focus for me because I myself have just lost the whip and been expelled or “booted it” from my parliamentary party. However, I have been raising this concern for years. In 2010 at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties I raised my concerns in a public fashion, and it caused some disquiet.
“In Ireland … the most stringent form of whip, the three line whip is imposed for every single vote. This demonstrates to me a lack of confidence amongst political parties. It shows an immature democracy, which urgently needs to grow up to meet the needs of a mature people. It also creates a fertile environment for mediocrity to flourish, where politicians are enabled and indeed encouraged to avoid individual accountability. The result of our entrenched and archaic party whip system is that our politicians can dodge personal responsibility for their own political decisions.”
I stand over that view. Politicians in this country really do need to stand up and be counted. I don’t advocate the abandonment of the Whip system. It is an essential fundament of a stable economy and a stable society. Coherent positions and voting by political parties are essential in the context of the annual Budget, all finance measures, social welfare measures and so on. But there it should stop.
Those “commentators” who cheer the crushing of political opponents, and applaud the stifling of debate in Ireland, do no service to either good journalism or good politics. In fact they are complicit with the rot in a system which so desperately needs changing.
Their anxiety to take quotes and spin from “well placed sources” may make their contributions sound plausible and knowledgeable. In fact, they are missing the real story.