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When conscience and party line clash

Editor's Viewpoint

When morality and party politics mix, the result is never pretty. The suspension of three SDLP councillors in Belfast because they refused to toe the party line on condemning harassment or intimidation of women outside sexual health clinics is a case in point.

The three abstained on the vote, while four party colleagues supported the motion.

It should be made clear that this newspaper does not support the harassment or intimidation of those seeking assistance in such clinics. If women want to avail of any or all of those services they should be at liberty to do so.

One of the councillors suspended says that he is likewise against any interference with women entering those premises, but took his decision based on his pro-life beliefs.

It can be argued that he chose the wrong battle in which to make those beliefs clear, as encouraging women not to have a termination is different from attempting to block their access to such services.

His beliefs may be a matter of conscience but could be misconstrued as supporting the more extreme methods adopted by some within the pro-life lobby.

But however he reached his decision, it demonstrates the dilemma many people in public life face when attempting to follow their conscience and adhering to party policy on any moral issue.

When it comes to the rights of women to seek terminations in Northern Ireland, politicians can face particular difficulties as parties can adopt entrenched positions which allow no wavering by individuals. Even attempts to change the current law to allow for terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality cause endless but heartfelt debate.

Many people are informed by their faith - or indeed lack of it - which determines how they feel in good conscience, but that may not necessarily coincide in every instance with party policy.

For reasons of discipline it is understandable that parties expect all members to follow policy on any issue but that may not always be the right approach on sensitive moral dilemmas. To compel members to adopt a position which may run contrary to their own conscience is not always the healthiest option. Many people would agree that even when there is broad consensus on policies like terminations, some freedom of expression on conscience grounds should be allowed.

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