“Allowing elected representatives to follow their consciences chimes with the public mood…”

It’s worth sharing this long form interview of Micheal Martin by Mark Carruthers. It’s detailed and Carruthers misses few major points: not least the tension between Martin’s previous pro-life and current pro-choice stance.

This was a nuanced performance by Martin who laid out many lines we can expect leaders of other parties which are just as split on the matter Fianna Fail to help them rethink, recycle and/or reuse.

Much of the fire in his internal opposition is already beginning to recede.

In yesterday’s Sindo, Eilis O’Hanlon argues that Martin’s approach to party management over a matter of conscience, augurs an important departure

Micheal Martin has been consequently keen to stress that no member of FF will be forced out of the party for their own stance on abortion. But if that protection extends to all members of the party, then it ought to imply that Martin has the same right. He made clear that he was speaking in a personal capacity.

When it comes to abortion, speaking for oneself is the only thing that can be done with honesty, since it’s such a deeply personal decision for any woman to make that it’s difficult to set dogmatic rules.

More damaging still is any tendency among otherwise like-minded political representatives to sow divisions on issues which should be above party politics. This propensity is encouraged by the media, which loves to leap on any slight slip of the tongue by a politician, and whip it up into a scandal.

It almost always has a deleterious effect on political life.

She cites the experience of former Scottish Labour MP Tom Harris who lost his Glasgow South seat to the SNP in 2015, who…

…recently recalled that, at his first Labour Party meeting as a new member in 1985 in Scotland, he spoke out against a pro-choice motion on abortion. There was a vigorous debate, and the vote was carried unanimously, despite his opposition. The next vote was to fill a vacant space on the management committee. His name was put forward and he was elected.

That wouldn’t happen these days. Harris’s opposition to abortion would be enough to have him cast into the political outer darkness as a heretic.

Possibly he’s viewing the past through slightly rose-tinted spectacles. The 1980s was a choleric decade politically. In general, though, he’s on to something. Respect for the other side’s point of view is increasingly rare. Members of mainstream parties who try to enforce conformity, and attack one another for breaking ranks, are doing the extremists’ job for them.

And finally…

What matters is hearing the voice of all those who vote for the party. In that, Micheal Martin may be right to address the nation at large, rather than the party faithful.

Allowing elected representatives to follow their consciences also chimes with the public mood, which doesn’t feel particularly factional about abortion right now.

That may yet change, but take cover if it does. It’s unlikely to be edifying.

Noel Whelan on Friday also welcomed this brave new freedom for Dail deputies (noting along the way the Taoiseach’s Damascene conversion from his belief in the party whip in 2013)…

The free vote means that both Varadkar and Martin can make their case for supporting repeal based on evidence in open Dáil debates instead of having to spend weeks corralling and cajoling colleagues behind a rigid party position or punishing those who disagree with them.

The free vote also means that individual TDs and Senators are required to research, analyse and come to a view on the issue themselves. They are then required in local media or national parliament to justify and explain their position and any changes in it.

Far from being “hogwash”, the introduction of free votes has been a maturing development in Irish politics. In the words of political historian Peter Richards, “when the whips are off, parliament has a new vitality”.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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