The Dail (Ireland's houses of parliament)
It’s mid-September in Ireland and the annual “think-ins” of the political parties here are in full swing as Dáil Éireann (the lower house of the Irish parliament) prepares to reconvene after the summer recess.  Recent weeks have exposed serious differences between the two parties who currently form the governing coalition, Fine Gael and Labour.  These primarily have to do with proposals to cut government spending and increase taxes as per the dictates of the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank.  One particular spending cut had been mooted would have imperiled services to disabled people in Ireland.  It prompted an outcry from advocates for the disabled.  Their outcry prompted the government to at least temporarily postpone the cut.

Thinly veiled disagreement over the mooted cut reveals the breadth of the gulf between members of the two government parties.  This now undeniable gulf – efforts to bridge it by the leaders of both parties notwithstanding – will shape the contours of Ireland’s political discourse for the next few months, until the details of another, still more painful budget are released on the 7th of December.  While the leadership seems to be implacably committed to a joint programme of government and the mutual compromises that will need to be made to reconcile their ideological differences, individual TDs (members of the lower house of the Irish parliament) aren’t so sure.

At least one first term Labour party TD, Colm Keaveney, the party’s chairman and a representative of the Galway East constituency, doesn’t seem to want to back down.  Writing in the Irish Times last week, Keaveney observes: “Labour has always stood for bringing them [people on the margins] back into the centre.  People with disabilities are one such group and defending their right to have the same opportunity for a fulfilled life as any other person is a matter worth waxing hot about.  I, for one, will make no apology for doing so.”  Indeed, he had even hinted that, if the cuts were to be implemented, the Labour party should consider its position within government.

Keaveney instantly became persona non grata within his own party, and was undoubtedly called far worse things by senior figures in Fine Gael, the larger of the two parties in government.  Elements of the Irish media, not to mention a fairly sizable chunk of the citizenry, expressed a similar opinion.  Why?  The standard establishment answer is that any threat to stability, especially as Ireland continues its fight to restore economic prosperity, is too risky and, accordingly, cannot be tolerated.

The power imbalance between the leadership of the Irish political parties, and their ordinary elected officials, is such that individual “back benchers,” especially those recently elected, are not permitted the free exercise of their own conscience or of their own speech in public.  Only in closed meetings can individuals voice their dissent on particular issues or on a party’s overarching direction or strategy.  And even then, as the Phoenix magazine reliably informs those of us interested enough to care about such things, those who dare to dissent for whatever reason are labelled malcontents against whom retribution will be severe and swift.

This bizarre, though long accepted, perversion of democratic politics still holds sway in Ireland.  But a recent editorial in the quintessentially establishment Irish Times raised a lot of eyebrows.  Entitled “The case for a free vote,” it begins, “[D]iscipline and unity of purpose are important elements within any political party but control mechanisms within the Oireachtas (Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, the upper house of the Irish parliament) verge on the autocratic.”  The editorial continues that “[P]ublic representatives should not be expected to jettison personal beliefs for party policy.”

The editorial details just how draconian the rules of Irish political parties, which date back to Charles Stewart Parnell, remain in 2012.  “If a TD abstains in a Dáil vote – never mind voting against the party’s position – he or she automatically forfeits the party whip.  They are expelled from the parliamentary party. . .”  It notes that the situation is less oppressive in other European countries and in the United States.

It then arrives at what really is the crux of the matter.  In Ireland, at least in theory, the Oireachtas, as the legislative branch, is supposed to provide an all-important check on the powers of the executive branch.  But when the political parties in control of the executive also have a huge voting majority in both houses of the Oireachtas, enforced by an absolutist whip system, how can it provide this check?

As the Irish Times editorial concludes, “[T]here is broad agreement within all parties that the power of the Executive is excessive in its relations with and control of the Oireachtas.  Archaic disciplinary rules perpetuate that imbalance.  Reform of the whip system within all parties should increase parliamentary independence and curb the power and arrogance of the Executive.”
Since his election to Dáil Éireann, Colm Keaveney has emerged as a controversial figure both inside and outside the parliamentary Labour party.  Yet he is right to stand on principle and to be true to his own beliefs in opposing what he regards as unconscionable spending cuts.  He is surely not alone in Dáil Éireann in being frustrated by a system that places party loyalty above everything else.  In his Irish Times opinion piece, he claims that there are a number of young and first term TDs in both Fine Gael and Labour who feel much the same as he does.

Here’s hoping that they will stand by their own principles and not bow to their party leaders when it comes time to cast important votes.  It is high time that the status quo was challenged.  The next few months are undoubtedly going to be trying times for Ireland and its political leaders, but I don’t believe that refusing to disavow deeply held beliefs poses anywhere near the threat to stability, either in the short term or the long term, that the establishment in this country does.  If Colm Keaveney and others hold their nerve, very interesting days may lie ahead.