Sunday 24 September 2017

FG draws up plans to target seats of abortion rebel TDs

Taoiseach takes hard line as Creighton weighs up options

Fionnan Sheahan, Michael Brennan and Fiach Kelly Berlin

FINE Gael is ruthlessly making plans to replace the abortion law rebels on the party ticket at the next general election, and win back their seats.

Sharp focus is already being placed on taking out those who lose the party whip by voting against the abortion law, including potential rebel European Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton.

Within Fine Gael last night, there was intense speculation that Ms Creighton had indeed decided to leave the party and vote against the bill.

But Taoiseach Enda Kenny has hardened his stance with Fine Gael TDs who vote against the Government on the divisive legislation.

Mr Kenny is focused on sending a hardline message as he faces down the potential loss of 10 TDs by the time the bill is passed through all stages at the Dail.

The party leadership is also coming under pressure to show that dissenters will be punished from loyal Fine Gael TDs who have backed the legislation.

Fine Gael TDs Peter Mathews, Terence Flanagan, Brian Walsh and Billy Timmins all voted against the Government on Tuesday night.

With another vote on the bill looming in the Dail next week, Mr Kenny made his most explicit warning yet to the rebels and those who are still wavering.

Mr Kenny said the rebels are all "adult people" who should know the consequences of their actions.

"It's regrettable to lose any member of a party. In this case I invested a lot of personal time myself over the years in working with many candidates and all of those who obviously were elected, so that's regrettable," he said.

But he added: "I don't expect that they can be candidates for the Fine Gael party in the next general election.

"I hope I make that perfectly clear."

However, Mr Kenny's stance is being challenged by some figures within the party supportive of the rebels.

"Kenny has no authority whatsoever to say people who lose the whip will be banned from standing at the next general election. It's a heap of s***. Constituencies select and the National Executive confirms," a senior party source said.

Despite the tension, Fine Gael moved immediately yesterday to expel the four TDs who already voted against the abortion legislation and took them off Oireachtas committee positions allocated to the party.

In addition, the Irish Independent has learned party strategists are already talking about where new candidates will be required.

Fine Gael is examining available figures and also looking at the coming local elections as a breeding ground for new candidates, to let the rebels know they will be replaced.

The message to rebel TDs is clear – lose the party whip by voting against the legislation, and there's no guarantee of getting back into the party, or holding the seat.

"This is politics. What people don't realise is, once you're gone, the following day it's about who gets the seat," a senior party source said.

"A strategic view has to be taken. Unfortunately, for anyone who tries to take on the party, they don't normally win."

Ms Creighton is regarded as having backed herself into a corner with a keynote speech she made on the abortion legislation on Monday where she set the bar high for backing the legislation. She caused particular annoyance with a reference to "group think" within the party on the legislation.

However, close allies of Ms Creighton said she had not intended to box herself in so tightly.

Health Minister James Reilly is also meeting with some of the Fine Gael TDs who are threatening to vote against the legislation. But Dr Reilly ruled out having a "cooling off" period before a suicidal woman could have an abortion.

He rejected a call from Fine Gael TD Michelle Mulherin for a delay of up to 10 days before the abortion could be performed.

But Dr Reilly said it was a "life or death" situation and he could not on his conscience support a cooling-off period when it could result in a suicidal woman taking her life in the meantime. "It just isn't feasible. I'm sorry to say that but that's the reality," he said.

The Oireachtas Health Committee is continuing to debate 89 proposed amendments.

Ms Creighton and others may vote against the bill at its final stages, depending on possible amendments.

LENIENCY

Some of the Fine Gael TDs who have lost the whip so far – Brian Walsh, Terence Flanagan, Peter Mathews and Billy Timmins – had expressed hope Mr Kenny might allow them stand for Fine Gael in future.They also hoped the Taoiseach might show leniency, but Mr Kenny is standing firm and said the TDs expelled themselves.

While attending a summit on youth unemployment in Berlin, hosted by German chancellor Angela Merkel, where he was accompanied by Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, Mr Kenny was asked about rebels standing under the Fine Gael banner in future.

"I would find that very difficult to have a position where people who know when they sign at the beginning what it is about," he said.

Earlier in the day, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar said: "It's always hard to lose colleagues and it's almost like losing a member of the family to see somebody lose the whip.

Irish Independent

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