The disciplining of two Green TDs for backing an opposition motion on the National Maternity Hospital has again focused attention on the role of the draconian whip system.
While one might justify the cracking of a proverbial whip to push an emergency measure or maybe a budget through the Dáil, this antiquated and oppressive method of coercing our elected representatives to toe the party line is a relic of another political era.
Free votes are commonplace in the British parliament, and the sky doesn’t fall on England if a proposed government measure is defeated. Here, it is extremely rare for a party to recognise that a politician has a conscience, quite apart from any cute political calculations as to what course of action will win him/her a few votes or avoid losing any.
The whip system is undemocratic in that it often brings about a voting result that does not reflect public opinion or runs completely counter to what people want.
I remember the frustration and feeling of utter betrayal by our national parliament I felt when, in 1993, the whips were imposed to defeat the late Tony Gregory’s bill to ban hare coursing. Animal protection groups in the weeks leading up to the vote had cause to be optimistic. A majority of TDs had told us they backed a ban on the cruel practice.
But then they were denied the right to vote in accordance with their consciences and the result was a farcical lopsided endorsement of something most TDs, and, according to opinion polls, the majority of Irish adults, found abhorrent. I was in the Dáil public gallery and can still see the long line of TDs walking through the ‘Níl’ gateway.
Given the reluctance of the parties to decommission the whip, I’d like to see more TDs defying this legalised bullying when other issues come before the Dáil and the majority view is ignored.
In particular, when Deputy Paul Murphy follows in Tony Gregory’s footsteps and moves a bill to ban coursing later this year, I hope that TDs will not allow themselves to be coerced this time into accepting a form of animal cruelty that most of us want banned. I’d expect all the Green TDs, and not just two or three of them, to vote for abolition.
Though Neasa Hourigan and Patrick Costello are to be commended for their brave stance on the National Maternity Hospital issue, the motion voted on had no legislative implications.
A commitment to the abolition of hare coursing is, however, enshrined in official Green Party Policy. If the Greens were to obey the government whip and support hare coursing in the vote, it would be on a par with applauding the ozone layer, saying yes to climate change, or pushing the last beleaguered polar bear into the freezing waters of the Arctic.
And saying that the whip made them do it won’t cut any ice.
Sometimes in politics, as in life generally, you have to do what you know is right; as distinct from what is profitable, self-serving, or politically expedient.
Congratulations to Neasa Hourigan and Patrick Costello of the Green Party for their courage in defying the party whip on May 18, for which they have been suspended for six months. The Coalition have spent months trying to force abortion onto the National Maternity Hospital in a move that has been strongly challenged on its legality.
Who doesn’t remember the sleight-of-hand by which the abortion referendum was passed? After selling it to a gullible public as a rare and special procedure, the small print was immediately activated to achieve abortion on demand.
And shame on those TDs who secretly were against the proposed measure but yesterday were too cowardly to stand up.
The ‘whip’ system originated in the UK to be used only rarely. I don’t know what the situation there is now, but here it is used, apparently, for every vote. This throttles the proceedings of parliament and makes a mockery of the office of TD.
M Ó Fearghail
If you own an apartment, you do not grant your landlord exclusive rights over its use. Yet this is exactly what the Government has done with the new maternity hospital.
The lease comes with a licence attached. This licence voids the ownership that would otherwise attach to a long lease. The licence gives the St Vincent’s Group of companies “exclusive possession and occupation” of the new facility. Like the lease, the licence runs for 300 years.
St Vincent’s Group casually admitted to the Oireachtas Health Committee that the company owes €450m. No wonder it gave itself power to mortgage its freehold interest in ‘the Premises’. The lease stipulates that the tenant (the HSE) cannot “unreasonably” withhold or delay its consent to this mortgaging.
Taxpayers understood they would own the shell of the new build. Owning the shell is worthless, however, because the licence can never be revoked. The St Vincent’s Group is free to reassign the licence, and, again, the HSE cannot ‘unreasonably’ withhold or delay its consent to this transfer.
St Vincent’s Healthcare Group also confirmed to the health committee the company is free to sell its freehold interest. Freehold ownership of the the hospital site combined with the lease-licence arrangement adds up to a highly saleable asset. There would be no shortage of interest among Catholic healthcare companies overseas.
The sole conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that the electorate has been fooled.
The devastating damage caused by explosive weapons, especially when used in places where many people live, is evident each night on our television screens. The conflict in Ukraine is just the most recent example of the effects on cities and towns when shells, missiles, mortars, improvised explosive devices, and similar explosives are used.
Since late 2019, Ireland’s diplomats in Geneva have been leading an important global process to develop a political declaration to reduce the humanitarian consequences of explosive weapons when conflict takes place in populated areas.
Despite unwelcome delays because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ireland looks set to finalise the text in the coming weeks and will be hoping for a considerable number of UN Member States to join the declaration and pledge to implement its commitments.
Food security, also receiving renewed attention, is often negatively affected when explosive weapons are used. Reducing the impact of conflict on food systems is a key priority for Concern Worldwide, which is why, through our ongoing campaign ‘Nothing Kills Like Hunger’, we called on Ireland to ensure that the declaration highlighted this critical issue.
Although Ireland’s declaration will not be legally binding, there is reason to hope that fewer people will suffer if military powers sign on. However, at a recent consultation in Geneva, some strong military powers sought to lower the level of ambition by calling for weaker language. This risks undermining the added value of the declaration beyond existing commitments under international law.
Much of the debate was focused on the central commitment, to either “restrict”, “refrain from”, or “avoid” the use of explosive weapons in populated areas when they have wide area effects. Key UN agencies and NGOs have called on states to commit to the strongest of the options — to “avoid”.
Overall, diplomats at the meeting showed a desire to make a meaningful difference for people at the centre of the initiative — those threatened by conflict. Now, as we near the end of this international process, Ireland must maintain its ambition and deliver a strong declaration that, when implemented, will protect people from the worst effects of war.
Advocacy Advisor, Concern Worldwide
52-55 Camden St
The UK government proposes to implement red and green customs channels for goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK. The channels should be green, white and orange: Green for goods destined for the Republic, white for exempt goods and orange for goods destined to remain in the North. Why flog the protocol when you can flag it instead?