Lucinda Creighton and Reform

Elsewhere on this site the full text of Lucinda Creighton’s speech to Magill is produced. However, there are no comment faculties there and given the importance of some of what she said I thought I would link it here for comments. She is obviously disillusioned but makes some interesting points. In particular she points to the party whip as a real source of legislative weakness.

In Ireland, however, the most stringent form of whip, the
three line whip is imposed for every single vote. This
demonstrates to me a lack of confidence amongst political
parties. It shows an immature democracy, which urgently
needs to grow up to meet the needs of a mature people. It
also creates a fertile environment for mediocrity to flourish,
where politicians are enabled and indeed encouraged to
avoid individual accountability. The result of our entrenched
and archaic party whip system is that our politicians can
dodge personal responsibility for their own political

13 thoughts on “Lucinda Creighton and Reform

  1. Personally, I think this is the most significant part of the speech in that it makes plain that politics is devoid of politicians being involved in policy creation and that they’re relegated to merely selling a product cooked up by others.

    “…the ‘Party Line’ is usually a hybrid entity. It’s a bit like a hybrid car, running on two or more power sources. It is made up of positions which emanate firstly from paid party officials, who are generally not party members and may have no commitment to, nor belief in, the values upon which the party is anchored. These positions appear on an ad hoc basis.

    They are then ‘stress tested’ on cross sections of normal people called focus groups. The party line is then tailored according to the pronouncements of such focus groups. Generally, experience suggests that focus groups are resolutely in favour of motherhood and apple pie. It is fair to conclude that focus groups generally disapprove of such horrors as humanitarian crises, war, genocide and what is
    known as fiscal rectitude or tightening the purse strings to save for the rainy day.

    Upon completion of this intensive process of policy
    formulation, the party position is ultimately signed off on by a collection of politicians known as ‘The Parliamentary Party’. However, it is unlikely that they will see the policy in written copy as they cannot be trusted by the beleaguered party handlers not to leak it to the press. Having completed this
    rigorous and intellectually challenging process of policy formulation, we arrive at what is familiarly known as ‘TheParty Line’.”

  2. I’m always amazed at how politicans can make valid points and yet completely fail to understand they can provide an example for others to follow.

    For example, on party finances, until FG is back in office it can’t change the system. Fair enough, but if FG is accepting corporate donations why does it keep them secret? We know why but you get the point, if FG are beholden to no one as claimed by Kenny, ok ok we know that’s a lie, then why doesn’t he reveal how FG is fined and I mean honestly, not the fairly tale declarations we get now.

    If Lucinda is so worried about cute hoor politics why has she chosen an unvouched expenses system and why doesn’t she publish the actual receipts for the expenses she claims to have incurred – which funnyily enough are exactly the same as those claimed by Varadkar and a few others – to the cent which means those expenses can’t be correct and instead they are claiming up to maximum amounts, because they can, not because they have incurred those costs.

    So Lucinda, a bit of pot and kettle and who pays for the funding of FG in Dublin South East – why doesn’t she publish proper audited accounts?

  3. Removing the blanket operation of the party whip in parliamentary votes seems to be a popular idea with the public in many countries. No doubt there are many people who feel that it would be better if TDs decided each issue on its merits, putting the best interests of the country first rather than having to do what the party whip orders them to. Would we not get better policy outcomes if this happened?

    In a word (or five words): almost certainly no, we wouldn’t. A situation without party whips would be akin to a parliament of independents, the disadvantages of which hardly need spelling out. Relaxing the whip for issues that can be seen as really non-partisan (eg, in the UK there is a tradition of holding ‘free votes’ on moral issues that cut across party lines) could be seen as harmless enough, and not having a ‘party line’ to follow on Oireachtas committees makes sense, but on measures that are central to a government’s economic programme, for example, it is hard to imagine many unwhipped TDs supporting tax increases or spending cuts.

    On which issues should party discipline be relaxed? Obviously, each TD would have an incentive to say ‘it should be relaxed on those issues where I am in a minority within the parliamentary party; but when I’m in a majority, all TDs should be compelled to vote for the majority’s stance’. Party discipline would be impossible to enforce on any issue in such a situation.

    TDs operate as disciplined blocs because they know it is in their interest to do so, not because the whip compels them to. In John Aldrich’s much-quoted words, ‘parties allow members to win more of what they seek, more often and over a longer period’. We need to bear in mind that parliamentary party group discipline is endogenous, not exogenous, ie it’s a rule chosen by the TDs, not something that an external force is imposing on them. It works only if every TD is subject to the same discipline; if some TDs are allowed to vote as they want, why (as lobby groups would demand to know) would any other TD heed the whip?

    It’s naive to imagine that without the presence of the party whip TDs would become freer to prioritise the ‘national interest’. Any initial sense of liberation would soon prove illusory. As G K Chesterton supposedly said regarding religion, those who stop believing in god don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Likewise, TDs in a weakly whipped parliament would discover that a relaxation of the party whip would not leave them free to be guided by nothing but their conscience but, rather, would leave them open to heavy pressure from a range of lobbies, both national and local, of the sort experienced by their US counterparts.

    At present such groups make little effort to influence TDs’ voting behaviour in the Dáil because they know that due to the strength of the whip system there is little point in even trying to do so. If such groups scent weakness, as when several FF backbenchers sent out signals last month that they might not support the government’s bill to outlaw stag-hunting, the pressure increases dramatically.

    If TDs did not vote as party blocs, it would be (even more) difficult after an election to tell who has got a mandate to do what. The effect of a vote for a candidate of, say, FF, would be unpredictable if he or she were free to pick and choose when to vote with FF in the Dáil. From the voter’s perspective a parliament operating without parliamentary group discipline would bring few benefits to outweigh the disadvantages. In the extreme case, if parliamentary party discipline broke down altogether, TDs would have to ‘log-roll’ (ie build alliances of mutual support) on every issue, or to put together agreements covering a number of issues, with a general air of back-room deals and unpublicised trade-offs characterising the work of parliament and the constant risk that TDs will defect from the agreement once their own projects have been secured. Parliamentary party groups with enforced discipline to ensure cohesive voting behaviour in effect institutionalise log-rolling and make ad hoc issue-by-issue coalitions unnecessary.

    • If one completely separates the selection of the government (eg. direct election of thbe Taoiseach with a complete ban on members of the Government being in the Dail or Senate) from the selection of the Dail, what is likely to be the impact on party discipline in the Dail?

      Our problem is that we lack checks and balances in how we govern ouorselves. This is exaccerbated by the complete dominance of the Government of the Dail which as you put it “the disadvantages of which hardly need spelling out” – given what this way of governing ourselves has resulted in twice in the last 30 years.

  4. Deputy Creighton has made an important contribution to the debate, but I fear that, if it is to linger in the public memory, it will be remembered for “Fianna Fail Light” rather than for any of the substantive obsevations made. Although this thread focuses on its malign impact, the whip system may be more of a symptom than a cause of the malaise in the body politic.

    It is how the party line is developed and established, particularly in advance of an election, and how the line is modified and new policies formulated in response to events during the lifetime of a Dail that, for me, comprise an important part of the speech. The whip system is simply the means of enforcing acquiesence to this line and these policies.

    Experience shows that there can be no form of effective governance without factions; and in this context the whip system is a necessary evil. The challenge is to avoid the tyranny of faction.

    Most party policies emerge fully formed from the bowels of the party machines and, for a governing party responding to events, from a closed process comprised of a minister, special advisers and senior department officials. The key change required is that the evidence supporting policies presented in the form of bills for enactment should be tested before parliamentary committees (whose chairs and vice-chairs should be elected by secret ballot), rebuttal evidence challenging the basis for the policies should also be presented and heard – with committees ideally having the resources to commission independent research – and, based on an assessment of this evidence (both for and against) committees should be empowered to alter fundamentally (if that is their judgement) any legislation proposed or to reject it in its entirety.

    Though the whip system will still be employed for committee and Dail votes, voters will see clearly who supported what policies that flew in the face of the evidence presented. No system is perfect, but this approach would reveal – and should reduce – the extent of capture of the executive by vested interests (and there is a sporting chance that policies enacted might be some what in the public interest).

  5. I’m delighted to hear that the, in my view, grossly distorted balance between the individual politician and the political party in this country is finally being debated. As an American living in Ireland for nearly ten years now, this is what troubles me most about the Irish political system (but note that there is much that I prefer to the American system – most notably when it comes to campaign finance).

    It is (or 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. Yet it is far more likely that the elected representative will blindly follow the dictates of her political party.

    TDs are often criticised for engaging in clinetelist politics in service of their constituents, but in their defence, that is their only opportunity to act as individual public servants, not simply as party apparatchiks. Similarly, TDs are rapped for not paying sufficient attention to national issues. Why would they? Regardless of their own perspective, they will be required to adopt their party’s position as gospel truth.

    Under the status quo, an elected official’s own beliefs, conscience and free will are subjugated to party 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. It is no wonder then that the electorate is so cynical about its political leaders.

    The last post warns of the potential for politicians to be influenced by national and local lobbies if the party whip were to be relaxed? What’s wrong with that? That, to me at any rate, is democracy. It also warns of the complexity of determining who has a mandate. Given that the parties are quite close ideologically anyway and that the electorate is extremely fickle (note the precipitous decline in support for Fianna Fail after receiving a “mandate” in the last general election), I’m not sure that it’s easy to decide who has a mandate in the current system. Additionally, the last post seems to imply that TDs will go off voting in different patterns on every issue that arises and that the Dail will revolve around ever-shifting, ad hoc alliances. This is not true. Most politicians join political parties because they generally agree with the party’s ideology, ethos and culture. Consequently, they are likely to support the party on most votes anyway. Even Lucinda Creighton, despite her diffferences with Enda Kenny, would still support Fine Gael most of the time if the whip were to be relaxed.

    One question I’m often asked is: Could there be an Irish Obama? My oft-delivered response demonstrates just how grossly imbalanced the relationship between the politician and the political party is here. 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. But an open nomination process 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, defying many of the senior Democrats in the Senate, continually upbraided his party colleagues for having voted to give President Bush unbridled authority to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s courage. His principled stance defined his presidential candidacy and swayed many on the left wing of his party to support him instead of the presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton.

    While the American two party system is most assuredly quite different to the Irish political system, 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, two minor ones and a smattering of independents. The interests of at least one party are subsumed into the coalition governments the electorate has now come to expect. The opposition parties, though their overarching ideologies might be 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 the Dáil functions.

    As it is now, the only real individuals in Irish politics are independents like David Norris, Shane Ross and Jackie Healy-Rae. Love them or loathe them, they add a great deal of colour and perspective to civic discourse. It’s refreshing to hear politicians speak their minds and not just parrot the party line. In Ireland in 2010, we need to hear more individualistic, creative, “outside the box” ideas from our elected officials, not just well-worn espousals and defences of safe, carefully crafted party platforms.

    Adjusting the relationship between the individual and the party might be deemed an implausible idea, especially when posed by an outsider. It’s not a panacea, but I think it would prove the most apt, honest and interesting reform of Irish politics. It might even give us an Irish Obama. As it is now, we can’t even get a George Lee.

    • “The last post warns of the potential for politicians to be influenced by national and local lobbies if the party whip were to be relaxed? What’s wrong with that? That, to me at any rate, is democracy. ”
      There is nothing wrong with this, provided there are other checks and balances. The US is a federal state with complete separation of the executive from the legislature.

      In a response to the 1980s crisis, two friends and I drew on this to propose a separation of powers for us here in this Republic. Our proposal was significantly different from current US law, custom and practice. see A Design for Democracy here

      We were conscious of the gridlock criticism often leveled as US Federal government. But US federal government seems both more effective and more democratic that ours – at least in so far as the the actions of those in power are more visible to the citizens.

      Another major factor that affects the power of lobbies is Freedom of Information. Our 1997 version left a lot to be desired and even then was curtailed in 2003. see my recent posting on this

  6. There are two aspects of Lucinda Creighton’s speech that interest me, her discussion on the paralysis of Irish politics, which I have witnessed myself in a series of debates in June 2006, one of which necessitates a Constitutional Referendum, The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2006, ( amended Jan 2007) and The Strategic Infrastructure Bill 2006. In both these debates all political parties adhered to the party line to the degree that not even amendments were added to the emergency laws, and Mr Kenny seemed only to reiterate the same words: “I will not obstruct the passage of this legislation through the Oireachtas”.

    At moments of such import, indeed, in budgetary and other debates, Irish politics appear to be a pose, which I would equate in Art Historical terms to ‘Mannerism’ as opposed to the Baroque of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary party, this is consistently reflected in low voter turnout and high political alienation, wherein people are at a loss for choice because it becomes quite apparent that all parties seem to be centrist with little choice and expedient relationships of convenience suffice instead of anything approaching political debate.

    Ms Creighton refers to this stasis here:

    “The objective for most politicians these days is not to break new political ground in the pursuit of some lofty national or public interest. No, the primary aspiration of most politicians is conformity. With blind conformity, comes mediocrity. It is essential, if a politician wishes to succeed – to progress politically – that they conform to the party “line”. So the first question must be, ‘What is the Party line?”

    and here :

    “The role of defending and selling the Party Line, becomes the lofty responsibility of the Party Leader and his or her Front Bench. They must ensure that no politician think independently, or (God forbid) assess or analyse the party position. In most modern democracies, where a whip system exists, the severity of the Whip imposed by a party depends logically on how critical a parliamentary vote is to the programme of the Government and/or the platform of the Opposition. This is rational and good.”

    Whether the hot-housed political nerd accepts it or not Irish Politics are in crisis. We have rafts of undigested Guillotined bills each summer recess. We have paired voting to the point that everyone has agreed Fianna Fáil Party policy over 13 years; and we have seriously Undebated Bills which end up in the courts ‘cos the oppositional viewpoint is sacrificed to a process of expediency that seems to send legislations flying to the Aras ,without anything but hollow speech !

    I expect that this ‘Mannerism’ in Irish politics and the theatre it presents benefits small groups of people but the political vacuum it has created is dangerous for the average voter who upon witnessing the theatrics in the Dáil wouldn’t wonder about how it effects them, their family and loved ones.

    And the second aspect that interests me is the ‘Context’ of her speech, I believe that this speech was just an introduction to current problems by a guest in the Glenties, the media responsehas been quite aggravated. Creighton’s points represent a starting point to address the severe problems that plaque our political life imo.

    It’s important that discussion begins somewhere and kudos to Lucinda for highlighting the problems that are apparent to a political incumbent.

  7. An essential aspect of democracy is that the voice of the people is heard within the government and the political system. As others have pointed out the whip system reduces the individual TD to the role of a spectator unless they are a senior, frontbench member of the party. Elected officials’ primary duty must be to represent the people and not march unquestioningly along behind the party banner. Being a member of a political party will of course mean the elected official will agree (to varying degrees) with the party position in a large percentage of issues. No one elected by the people should be restrained from voicing an independent opinion in the media or on the floor of the Dail. However Ireland’s present system makes party loyalty paramount for selection as a candidate and advancement in the political system if elected. Political reform in Ireland should include abolishing the whip system; it should also include further steps that could aid the election of more independent-minded TDs. One such suggestion would be to have party candidates for the Dail chosen in a secret ballot primary election style manner. Enrolled party members in each constituency would pick candidates from among those who declared for the position. To handle snap elections, when there may be insufficient time for a primary election, party members could also elect by secret ballot a panel of selectors for a set term of 4 years. Independent minded TDs would not be a cure-all for what ails Irish politics, but it can be a step in the right direction.

  8. @DanDonovan I have pondered upon this remark a while:

    “Being a member of a political party will of course mean
    the elected official will agree (to varying degrees)
    with the party position in a large percentage of issues.”

    The voter understands that the elected official represents
    their party policy in both Government and in Opposition,
    but the voter also understands that the carrying through
    of this policy can be effected by numerous issues;
    especially in the event of an agreed programme for
    Government and that certain policy positions may be
    subject to ‘adaptions’ or change advised in the policy
    position of the Junior Partner!

    In a Coalition government, for instance , and I would
    take the Greens as a working example here, the voter
    feels that none of the platforms announced as a part
    of the electoral campaign have been carried through.
    This is reflected in a huge drop in support for the
    Greens since entering Government with FF (vis Opinion

    In those terms would not a strong leadership be advised
    in developing Policy Platforms lest they become subject
    to outside stringencies that amount to weak parliamentary
    parties that are in essence ‘Constitutionally Hamstrung’?

    The place that Lucinda Creighton chose to bring up
    these issues may not have been the best place to
    undertake such a wide-ranging set of critiques but I
    believe that they were necessitious- it has to begin
    somewhere !!

  9. The simple answer is that parliamentary systems of government require cohesive parliamentary party groups (PPGs). In presidential systems such as the USA PPG cohesion is not essential, but only one European democracy (Cyprus) operates as a presidential system. In parliamentary systems effective government (effective in the sense of governments being able to get their legislation through) requires that members of the government PPG(s) vote en bloc.

    That does not necessarily mean that they simply have to accept a line dictated by someone else, because PPGs do have some role, albeit a subordinate or veto player one, in deciding what the party line should be in the first place. Cohesion does not mean that TDs all tamely accept the line of the ‘party bosses’; it means that they all accept the majority line on each issue, knowing that even if they are in a minority on some issues they will be in the majority on most, and in the long run this agreement to operate as a cohesive bloc increases the power of each of them. To quote John Aldrich again, ‘parties allow members to win more of what they seek, more often and over a longer period’.

    In other areas there is a lot of scope for government backbench TDs and opposition TDs to play a much more meaningful role in the parliamentary process, through more powerful committees that select their own chairs (the chairs to be distributed proportionately among the parties) and that have the opportunity to develop laws rather than simply discuss government legislation. That procedure, where a committee develops a law on a cross-party basis and only then does it go to the plenary session of parliament, is widespread across Europe; in this country the sequence is reversed, to the advantage of government and the detriment of parliament. But, right across Europe, government PPGs vote en bloc on government legislation, and government could not function without this being the case.

    Cohesive bloc voting does, there’s no disputing, reduce the individual accountability of MPs, as is pointed out in a post above and indeed was a complaint of Moisei Ostrogorski writing over 100 years ago. It also gives an often meaningless and ritualistic flavour to Dáil debates. But the alternative scenario is one where each government TD regards his or her vote as a bargaining chip in a struggle to extract selective benefits. Even as things stand there are complaints that TDs are unduly focused on the local rather than the national, but this concerns the way TDs spend their time, not the way they vote on legislation or matters of national policy. Were we in a situation where TDs could bargain over their votes on matters coming before the Dáil, we would find the Taoiseach of the day compelled to ‘work the phones’ before major votes and deal with endless demands for ‘pork’ for the constituencies of wavering deputies, and those concerned about local considerations having an excessive impact on the behaviour of TDs would look back nostalgically to the way things were in 2010.

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