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Irish Politics, the Whip Hand, and Moral Courage

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 10, 2013

Some readers may be confused by today’s news story on Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny’s refusal to allow a “free” vote on impending abortion legislation. Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin had insisted that legislators in all parties be permitted to vote according to their conscience. Those unfamiliar with Irish parliamentary politics may wonder how this could ever not be the case.

Most parliamentary systems of government (i.e., representative government) function through two or more political parties. These parties serve as the primary means of presenting candidates for election to public office. The more influential the political party is, the more candidates it can have for public office at every level, and this typically results in legislative voting blocks. In other words, on key legislation, members of the same party vote the same way.

In all governments, this expectation is either formally or informally enforced. Since party strength and party support are key determinants of political success, the majority of candidates who find either their beliefs or their fortunes allied with one party or another take special care to retain the good will and support of the rest of the party. They vote “the party line”, and this puts them in a position to get endorsements and financial support from the party for future campaigns, to obtain cosponsors for their own special bills, and to get the votes they need to pass those bills.

In most systems, the parties assign one member to be the “whip”—the person responsible for making sure the legislators who represent their party will be present for key votes and vote the right way. Pressure will be more intense for key platform votes, especially when there is some danger of losing if the party does not close ranks. The whip uses a combination of threats and blandishments to ensure conformity (threats of loss of party support which may cost a legislator a committee position or some other loss of status, including a failure to be reelected; or offers of support on other legislation, or various kinds of preferment).

In some countries, party uniformity is frequently breached with relatively minor consequences except in key situations; in others the expected uniformity is so habitual and so great that a particular vote would have to be announced to be a “free” vote by the whip for legislators to feel they could break ranks without significant consequences. For example, the former situation characterizes the United States; and the latter characterizes Ireland.

This is why Archbishop Martin demanded a “free” vote; and this is also why Prime Minister Kenny said he would not allow one. Liberalizing Ireland’s laws and attitudes toward abortion is apparently a high priority for the coalition government Kenny put together in 2011—forged from an alliance between his own party, Fine Gael, and the Labour Party. When Kenny states that there will be no free vote for the “government parties”, this is what he means. Opposition parties may free their members, as has been done by the Fianna Fáil party. Depending on a particular party’s position, this may help or hurt the pro-life cause.

But the fact that Kenny will insist on the use of the “whip hand” does not mean that legislators in the government parties cannot vote as their conscience demands. It just means that it may cost them, in terms of political power, to do so. If we compare this to imprisonment or death, one would expect that only a wimpish or corruptible politician would be deterred—in addition, of course, to all those who really favor abortion anyway, though they may be loath to admit it.

One may also, of course, judge that this leaves very few politicians remaining, and one may be right. My main purpose here is to make the news story intelligible to the uninitiated.

Dangers in Emphasizing Conscience Rights

But I would also like to point out that playing the “conscience” card is not without dangers of its own. Archbishop Martin would rightly prefer that all legislators be formally freed to vote as they think best on such an important issue, for the simple reason that this issue is supposed to be decided on moral rather than political grounds. Freedom of conscience, in this instance, would mean that the government parties would not (officially) punish anyone for voting against the bill. But there is something else as well. As the modern State turns increasingly against both natural and Catholic values, beleaguered political minorities will naturally seek to be left alone with their principles in the name of conscience rights, because such rights, although inherited from a Christian tradition in radical decline, still have some traction in Western political thought.

Unfortunately, there are two problems with emphasizing conscience rights. First, in general those whose wrath we are attempting to evade by appealing to the rights of conscience no longer possess a cohesive, well-grounded view of man or of the principles by which conscience ought to be formed, such that they should ultimately respect anything beyond the positive law. We may be almost certain that if they choose to respect conscience, it will be done selectively in order to further their own ends, such as respecting the consciences of gays who wish to marry.

Second, there is a very real danger in emphasizing conscience rights of giving the impression that we can approve nearly any policy as long as the few who seriously oppose it are not forced to participate. But when it comes to real matters of conscience, this impression is wrong. Taking refuge in it too easily becomes cowardly.

Whatever we must really oppose in conscience is wrong not just because of some peculiar and private religious sensibility of our own, but because it is morally wrong always and for everyone. It is easy to beg for conscience rights, but bearing witness against the broad implementation of an evil takes moral courage. It is precisely this sort of witness that must not be lost in politics, even by those about to vote on the abortion bill in Ireland.

Widespread principled resistance can doom both a “whip” vote and the government which demanded it. This has happened before. This should happen again.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: scunoology - Jun. 18, 2013 7:27 AM ET USA

    Being Canadian, I know the power of the party whip. We very rarely have free votes. To vote against your party is political suicide. That is how we ended up with the most secular, non-Christian (Catholic) of governments. Ireland, I fear, is on exactly the same route as Canada. An abusive (in many ways) Catholic clergy in Quebec has repulsed many from the Church. And so here, we have our French Catholic province promoting euthanasia!

  • Posted by: - Jun. 12, 2013 2:53 PM ET USA

    Let us hope that legislators in Ireland vote against the abortion bill. Mr. Kenny has no business telling any legislator that they will suffer for their "NO" vote. Let us hope that the Catholics & other similar group of concerned citizens let the government know that they oppose this bill. Keep Ireland faithful to their faith.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jun. 11, 2013 8:57 AM ET USA

    Often when reading about the travels and adventures of St Paul I find myself thinking, "Whoa! Be careful, Paul, of what you are saying and how you say it! These people you are addressing are just itching for a reason to kill you!" It's an involuntary thought and when I reflect for a moment, I understand he is teaching us how to behave with his own actions. I think our bishops -- in fact, all of us who love the faith -- need to read a little every day about Paul. Then we all need to imitate him