Kenny's Cabinet divided on abortion regime between conservative and liberal
Published 18/06/2016 | 02:30
Enda Kenny's hybrid minority coalition is shaky enough without adding an abortion referendum to its "to-do list".
But on Tuesday next the Cabinet will take its first tentative steps towards dealing with this most divisive issue which has convulsed the nation on many occasions in the past 33 years by approving a Citizens' Assembly to consider the matter. The Assembly will, in turn, report to the Oireachtas, where a special committee will take it on and hear expert opinion, before the issue of another referendum is considered by TDs and Senators in a vote free of party constraints.
On September 7, 1983, 54pc of Irish voters went to the polls and voted by precisely two to one in favour of the so-called Eighth Amendment. It effectively stated that it guaranteed the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn. It was a most intemperate referendum campaign and it triggered a series of political controversies, domestic and international court challenges which still resonate today.
There are signs that the Irish public wants to change the Eighth Amendment, but there is also evidence that the bulk of the Irish people are also extremely cautious about the issue.
A Red C opinion poll for Newstalk radio in January signalled that up to eight out of 10 people favour permitting abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and in cases of rape and incest. Such changes would most certainly require a referendum and the debate would once more be dominated by those with strong views for or against change.
The history of referendums in this State is extremely patchy at best. The original question is often given a rather different answer. Many people old enough to remember abortion debates will be wincing in advance.
Some in Cabinet will not want to see the process embarked upon next week coming to fruition any time soon. In fact there is a chance it could take some two years or more - and thus also a chance this Government may not last long enough to have to deal with it.
But the start of the process once again puts the individuals sitting around the Cabinet table under the spotlight. Just where do they stand?
Well the Taoiseach himself, who has represented Mayo for 40 years, is a conservative on this issue. While he has somehow managed for decades to straddle the "liberal" and "traditional" wings of Fine Gael, his inclination towards the liberals has always been tempered by the need to take account of his own conservative provincial and rural voters.
Kenny is also entitled to some credit for delivering first ever legislation for the X-case after a 20-year delay, a process which lost Fine Gael seven parliamentary party members. His government also delivered same-sex marriage via referendum, though his early reluctance in the campaign took time to overcome.
Now his "clever stratagem" - setting up a neutral Citizens' Assembly before being shunted to a long parliamentary process - faces its first test. There are considerable differences of opinion among the ministers.
The Taoiseach is joined in the "conservative corner" by party colleagues, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, Rural Affairs Minister Heather Humphreys, and Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe. All of these have a mix of personal conviction and good local political reasons for their cautious stance, while they agree the "safety process" advanced by the Taoiseach.
Independent Ministers, Denis Naughten in charge of Communications, and OPW Junior Minister, Seán Canney, have expressed grave doubts about the need to change the Eighth Amendment.
Two other Fine Gael Ministers, Simon Coveney, in charge of Housing and Planning, and Education Minister Richard Bruton, are so far "definite maybes" on the issue. Coveney is a prospective successor to Kenny and believes he has a real need to be cautious. Bruton is not as conservative as his brother, the former Taoiseach John Bruton, but he avoids this issue.
The others are broadly classified as "liberal" though their range of specific views cover a multitude of opinion shadings. Independent Ministers Katherine Zapppone, Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and John Halligan, have all made their support for constitutional change clear.
Back in summer 2013 it took evidence from legal and medical experts for three Fine Gael TDs now in Cabinet, Regina Doherty, Simon Harris and Mary Mitchell-O'Connor, to overcome their reluctance about the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill.
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, were credited with goading the Taoiseach into announcing the review process last November ahead of the election.
But all three will be more cautious now as they are are all potential successors to Kenny, and they are loath to spook the traditional party faithful at this stage of events.
Varadkar has stressed the need to have a clear replacement for the Eighth Amendment before proceeding to any referendum.
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, despite having a sizeable number of conservative voters in his Laois constituency, declared unequivocally 18 months ago that the current situation was too restrictive. He said the mother's health must be taken into consideration.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan took courageous stances in the 1996 divorce referendum and again 2002, the last time voters considered abortion. But he will be more than cautious about specific change.