Of course, party dictates can also prove extremely troublesome on less lofty, more parochial, but even more politically volatile, local issues. Whether it’s a government decision to close a rail station or withdraw a regional hospital’s patient services, voters invariably – and quite rightly in my view – want the people they put into office to fight for them. Government TDs are all too often put in an impossible position: support the will of their constituents and be ostracized by the parliamentary party or genuflect to party headquarters and face a perilous re-election campaign.
Those who call the shots at party headquarters should reflect on the dilemma they force office holders into and ask themselves a simpler question. Do they want to keep their TD, who supports the party 90% of the time, or to facilitate the election of another aspirant to office, who’ll support their agenda virtually none of the time? In the United Sates, the Democratic and Republican parties, while not encouraging dissent, have said yes to the former and no to the latter. Doing so has allowed each party to elect candidates in ordinarily unfavorable territory.
Moreover, the rigid discipline required to sustain small parties and governments in multi-party parliamentary democracies elsewhere in Europe mightn’t be as necessary here. There are three large parties, one minor one and a number of independents in Dáil Éireann. The interests of two parties, Fine Gael and Labour, are subsumed into a coalition government, which the electorate has come to expect. And this coalition has a huge majority. The opposition parties, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, though their overarching ideologies are disparate, typically unite against the government. The voting breakdowns (i.e., there might be one or more defectors in the government and in the opposition) might change slightly were the political parties to allow their members more voting freedom, but the final outcomes are unlikely to change in most instances. Still, this would obviously entail significant, dramatic changes to the process of governing and to how Dáil Éireann functions.
In February’s general election, the Irish people surprisingly elected 17 independents. They occupy just about every ideological segment on the spectrum and, love them or loathe them, they add a great deal of color and perspective to civic discourse. It’s refreshing to hear politicians speak their minds and not just parrot the party line. We need to hear more individualistic, creative, “outside the box” ideas from our elected officials, not just well-worn espousals and defenses of safe, carefully crafted party platforms. The way the Irish people voted earlier this year would suggest that many agree.
Adjusting the relationship between the individual and the party might be dismissed as a radical and implausible idea, especially when advocated by an outsider whose view is undeniably shaped by long exposure to the far from perfect and not always democratic process in the United States. It would not be a panacea, but I think it would prove an apt, intellectually honest and most interesting reform of Irish politics. Regrettably, I’m fairly certain it won’t happen anytime soon.
* Larry Donnelly is a lawyer and law lecturer and self described political junkie from Boston who lives in Ireland