Throughout 2010, and up until this past February’s general election, a number of wide-ranging proposals to reform Irish politics and the political system were mooted.  The abolition of Seanad Éireann (Ireland’s comparatively weak “upper house” of parliament), a reduction in the number of TDs (members of Dáil Éireann, the lower house of Irish parliament), a tightening of the rules for claiming expenses, a gender quota system to increase the number of female candidates and office holders were among them.  Interesting ideas all, but what’s been said and what the current government might ultimately do in response do not address what I consider a more profound systemic deficiency in Ireland.

That is the power balance between the individual politician and the political party.  It is grossly out of whack.  It should be a fundamental tenet of democracy that a candidate for political office, once elected, will remain true to herself and to those who placed their trust in her.  It is far more likely, however, that the elected representative will blindly follow the dictates of her political party.

TDs are often criticized for engaging in clinetelist politics in service of their constituents, but in their defense, that is their only opportunity to act as individual public servants, not simply as party apparatchiks.  Surprisingly to me, this issue of balance is seldom addressed, though prominent columnist and broadcaster Vincent Brown does vent at times about the power of the party whip.

The consideration of a question once posed to me at a university debate – in what seemed to be headier times for the United States after President Obama’s election – crystallizes the magnitude of this problem: “Could there be an Irish Obama?”  The answer, simply stated, is no.

First off, if the Illinois Democratic Party chose its nominees for office in the same fashion as an Irish political party, Barack Obama never would have been elected to the United States Senate.  A black, reform-minded liberal from Chicago would almost certainly have been adjudged too risky a proposition.  A moderate Democrat from the “Chicago machine” or from the conservative southern part of the state would have been considered a more viable candidate and thus ordained the nominee by the party insiders who control the nomination process in Ireland.  But an open nomination process in Illinois allowed Obama to take his message to the wider electorate and he cruised to victories in the Democratic primary and general election.

Then in office, Senator Obama would have been expected to keep his head down and toe the party line in his first term if he were a member of an Irish political party.  He didn’t and, risking the wrath of many senior Democrats in the Senate, criticized the bipartisan majority that gave President George W. Bush unbridled authority to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His vote defined his presidential candidacy and swayed many on the left wing of his party to support him instead of the presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton.  Whether one agrees with now-President Barack Obama’s politics or approach to governing, the foregoing are facts.

Here in Ireland, there were surely some in the hierarchy of the then-governing Fianna Fáil parliamentary party who had deep reservations about the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA).  NAMA was conceived by the party leadership and their economic advisers as a means of rescuing the banks from their out of control lending practices during the Celtic Tiger and militating against an even worse economic catastrophe than the one that has taken place.  Yet back then, not one Fianna Fáil TD openly opposed the enabling legislation for fear of the repercussions.

Obama voiced disappointment at his party colleagues’ acquiescence to Bush’s opportunistic power grab knowing that he would not be punished as a result.  A Fianna Fáil TD who voted against the NAMA legislation knew that he would have been expelled from the parliamentary party and consigned to the wilderness.

Under the status quo in Ireland, an elected official’s own beliefs, conscience and free will are subjugated to her party’s dictates.  Those politicians who advance into leadership positions get there because they have demonstrated relentless fidelity to their party above all else and an aptitude for defending the party leadership from attack, even when objectively indefensible.  As such, Irish politicians are compromised by the time they get anywhere near the top.  It is no wonder then that the electorate is so cynical about its political leaders.

Irish political parties do sometimes allow TDs to vote their conscience without fear of the party whip.  TDs should be allowed, and actually encouraged, to vote their conscience.  While some might argue that this would cause legislative paralysis and/or chronic instability, a politician joins a party – at least one would hope – because he generally agrees with its ideology, ethos and culture.  Consequently, he is likely to support the party on most votes anyway.

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