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The whip subverts the Constitution

We’re just getting started on a parliamentary democracy that enfranchises individual TDs not their parties

“The people have spoken, but what have they said?”, the head-scratching commentariat has endlessly mused since the March election, as it reluctantly negotiates a changed universe where politics once existed in a binary-star system with just one waxing or waning moon and the occasional incoming independent or ideological comet to exert some short-term gravitational influence upon the status quo.

But with the earth having turned since that conundrum was posed and with the arrival of the cuckoo, the citizenry can, for now, sleep soundly in the knowledge that – following the longest bout of post-electoral plutonic dance – the 32nd Dáil looks set to perform the second and third of its constitutionally mandated duties. It will elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and approve the motley cabinet crew- cuckoos included – that he looks likely to nominate.

The incoming meteorite that was the people’s conundrum for the establishment has resulted in history of sorts being made. The civil-war hatchet has been, if not buried, hidden in the thatch and the Soldiers of Destiny will abstain in Kenny’s re-election vote: That is, provided Kenny can muster a scourge – the collective media noun for those dreaded pot-hole focussed independents – to support him. And the old enemies have even entered a “Confidence and Supply” arrangement whereby FF will assist – if not support – Kenny’s government from the curiously comfortable confines of the opposition benches.

Of course the electorate has only itself to blame for ignoring the Newtonian script and creating the gravitational dynamic that has Fianna Fáil – the party of power – being attracted away from the nest by the pull of Sinn Féin nibbling at its bum and a large cohort of uncontrollable and unpredictable independents and smaller parties exerting unexpectedly strong pull on the solar system.

But even now, knowing the new physics, the media pack continues to scratch its collective head.

Is this a crisis or a correction? How can a country be run without a single party government or ’proper’ coalition rooted in an overall Dáil majority? And how will the influence of those looney but gravitationally significant independents – both inside and outside government – affect the celestial dynamic?

But all this musing ignores something screamingly obvious.

For instance, few would blame the Lowry-Rae phenomena for the mess the two-and-a-half party system has created – much of it caused by the needs of the political parties themselves: From pick-me-ups to ministerial constituency strokes; from gaping party coffers to unhealthy political/corporate relationships; from re-zoning powers to ‘leave the cheque blank’, and ‘would ye like a pint or a transfer’, the negative influence of parties has permeated society since the State’s inception and has stimulated the forces that have led to the new physics.

Moreover, most would agree that a huge part of the problem is that the government controls, as opposed to being controlled by (answerable to), the Dáil through the most corrosive, and possibly unconstitutional, contribution the parties bring to the Dáil chamber – the whip system. But it is usual to ignore this most obvious dysfunctionality whilst branding the vagaries of our system of Proportional Representation, the culprit.

The framers of our constitution designed an elegantly beautiful system of power-exercise and transfer which has the people’s sovereign authority at its centre. That power is exercised through the ballot box then down through a structured system whereby TDs pick a Taoiseach, then approve a government and then discuss and approve legislation mostly, but not exclusively, presented by that government.

There are no political parties and no opposition in this elegant scenario. TDs represent constituents and the government represents those TDs. And yes, it is necessary to convince 79 TDs to support individual measures to get them passed – but it doesn’t have to be the same 79 each time. And the gravitational force that keeps the planetoids in orbit and avoids heavenly collisions should be the desire never to face the electorate unless absolutely necessary.

Here’s how we should use that Constitutionally- mandated construct to revive our politics. Article 16.2. 1° of the constitution suggests that all TDs should be independent, as it states that “Dáil Éireann shall be composed of members who represent constituencies determined by law”.

The practice whereby Dáil candidates fetter their hoped-for discretion by signing party pledges to abide by whips must surely offend TDs’ Article 16 obligations.

What the new dispensation has licensed may prove difficult in the short term but will only represent a transitory phase in the loosening of the grip of party politics on our democracy. Political power should be exercised by our elected representatives for their constituents’ benefit and not the parties they have manufactured around themselves.

The people have, indeed, spoken, but is anybody listening?