Last week, Willie Penrose, a Labour Party TD (member of Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s lower house of parliament) based in the town of Mullingar in the constituency comprising the counties of Longford and Westmeath, resigned his seat at the government’s cabinet table and the party whip. He had been a so-called “super junior” minister with responsibility for housing and planning. This is a very big job in Ireland in 2011 in light of mounting mortgage arrears and the collapse of the building industry.

Penrose is enormously popular in his locality. Largely as a result of this personal appeal, his is one of very few constituencies in rural Ireland where Labour has a strong presence and well-developed organisation. He has now resigned from his cabinet seat, lost the party whip and is no longer a member of the parliamentary Labour Party. As he had promised, he refused to support the Fine Gael/Labour-led government’s decision to close the Irish army barracks in Mullingar. The two government parties some time ago united on a decision to close a number of army barracks around the country as a cost cutting measure in these difficult times.

The barracks has long been an institution in Mullingar and a boon to the local economy. In addition to what the barracks has meant to the town financially, the soldiers stationed there and their families are part of the fabric of the community. Penrose said that “the barracks is in his DNA” when he announced his decision to flout the party whip and resign his seat in the cabinet.

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Since his resignation, while constituents have praised his heroism in fighting for them, Penrose has been skewered in the press and panned by unnamed colleagues in both Fine Gael and Labour. It is important to point out that Penrose would have had to resign his cabinet seat and the party whip, regardless of his party affiliation. All of the parties operate this way.

Writing in the Irish Independent, political editor Fionnan Sheahan analyses the incident through the prism of the tried and true “parish pump politics” critique. Sheahan notes that “[Penrose’s] attachment to the parish pump did sometimes raise questions over his ability to focus on national questions” and “the parish pump couldn’t be seen to dictate policy.”

The last is a fair point and highlights a key difference between the structure of governance in Ireland and the United States. While members of the cabinet are outside, unelected individuals appointed to their posts by the President in the United States, they are elected members of parliament appointed by the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) in Ireland. Furthermore, they are appointed by the Taoiseach, himself an elected member of Dáil Éireann (Ireland’s lower house of parliament), unlike the President of the United States, who is elected in his own right.

As such, Penrose’s stance probably made his seat at the cabinet table untenable. Whether this single position should affect his standing as an elected member of the Labour Party, however, is another matter.

Fionnan Sheahan goes on to opine that the resolve shown by the government parties in refusing to yield or take account of Penrose’s opposition to the barracks closure demonstrates the following.

“Regardless of their rank or service, no TD is going to hold the Coalition to ransom. Newly elected backbenchers can take note of this salutary tale.
Part of the advantage of the Government holding such a substantial majority is that it can afford the attrition that comes with losing a number of TDs over cutbacks.
Without even arriving at a budget vote yet, the Coalition has lost two TDs – one from each party – over cutbacks on a local level.
The Government parties haven’t even batted an eyelid at the departures.”

Sheahan’s description of the state of play is depressingly accurate. It again highlights how out of whack the balance is in Irish politics between the individual elected official and his political party. If a TD who is a member of a political party defies the party leadership on just one vote, she will lose the party whip and be expelled from the parliamentary party. The demand of all Irish political parties for unquestioning obedience to centralised dictates is an affront to voters and a violation of the most sacred principles of democracy.

Should Willie Penrose have supported the abolition of an army barracks that means so much to the town he loves and to the people who put their trust in him at the ballot box? Should he have overruled or ignored his own conscience? Does a stance against a barracks closure make him any less of a “Labour man” than he has proven to be throughout his lengthy and distinguished career in public service?

In a democracy, one would think that the answer to all three questions must be a resounding no.

Of course, the parish pump is a handy talking point for Irish political parties to use when one of their elected officials dares to step out of line. It gives a party plenty of space to protest that it is acting in the national interest and taking a broader view. To avoid a chaotic government that is hopelessly consumed by parochial matters and effectively paralysed, all elements of the government’s agenda must be stringently enforced through exercise of the whip.

At least two present realities vitiate against this commonly deployed argument. First is the huge majority enjoyed by the Fine Gael/Labour-led government. If ever political parties had the room to allow their elected officials a degree of latitude on some votes, the time is now. The size of the majority will facilitate pushing their agenda through, even if there are a few dissenters on certain votes.

From a pragmatic point of view, allowing for a degree of latitude would be a benefit especially to the Labour Party, which picked up a number of seats in ordinarily unfriendly territory in this year’s general election. Taking votes at odds with the interests of their constituents will make re-election a very tall order for some.

Yet both Fine Gael and Labour, as Sheahan puts it, can “afford the attrition.” It seems that the parties are content to worry about the re-election prospects of their most loyal stalwarts in marginal constituencies when they come to that bridge.

The second reality is that Irish elected officials don’t solely lose the party whip when their “attachment to the parish pump” causes them to vote in the best interests of their constituents. Putting this argument front and centre is intellectually dishonest. The parties equally discipline their office holders when they vote against the leadership on matters of national interest. This may soon prove an issue for both government parties when another austere budget is presented in the coming weeks. On the flip side, any opposition party TD who believes austerity measures to be a necessary evil most assuredly will not endorse them.

In this context, is it any wonder that Irish voters elected so many independents (17) in this year’s general election? These independents succeeded despite the significant advantages enjoyed by their major party opponents.

The success of independent candidates is proof of the increasing appetite of voters throughout Ireland for elected officials who will both act as advocates on important local issues and make up their own minds on wider issues affecting the national interest. In the next general election, these independents will stand on their own records as individual elected officials – not as party apparatchiks. This is how politics should work in a democratic republic.

Returning to Mullingar, Willie Penrose put his money where his mouth is and accepted the consequences last week. For effectively standing up to the extreme rigidity of the party whip system in Ireland and the fundamentally anti-democratic nonsense that underpins it, Willie Penrose isn’t an opportunistic parish pump politician. He is a profile in courage.