News Analysis

Tuesday 16 September 2014

I felt a pain in my political heart when I heard of Savita tragedy

Published 17/11/2012 | 17:00

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The Taoiseach has a stock phrase which appears in his speeches these days. It goes something like this: "I want Ireland to be the best small country in the world (in which to do business)." His face graced the cover of 'Time' magazine and he picked up a European of the Year award at a glittering ceremony. All this reflecting the verdict emanating from the World Economic Forum that Ireland is the "poster child" for economic recovery. And it is true there is a lot of goodwill for Ireland, thanks to a world-class aid programme and respected peacekeepers and diplomats.

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Last week, when ministerial heads were hanging after the pathetic turnout and a narrow win in the Children's referendum, glasses were tinkling in Iveagh House to celebrate a different victory, again on the international stage. 190 countries had voted to award Ireland a seat on the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Council. Ireland got nearly as many votes as the United States and Germany, beating off stiff competition in the Western European and Others region from Sweden and Greece.

It was, according to the Tanaiste, "a great day for Ireland and for the values that are dear to us. . . Human rights and the protection of human rights is a cornerstone of Irish foreign policy" and that this victory was an "endorsement of Ireland's international standing".

After what happened in Galway to Savita Halappanavar, it would appear we play better on the human rights front in away games than at home.

On learning of this tragedy, I felt a pain in my political heart; weary to revisit the old quarrel and well-worn moral quandary. I was catapulted back 20 years to my first general election. The country was convulsed by the political, medical and constitutional crisis of the X Case when the Attorney General took an injunction to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim travelling to England for an abortion.

The X Case was the single issue that propelled me into national politics; I was incensed and motivated in equal measure. The Supreme Court decision was right on every level in my view. I recall saying at a pre-election rally that "there was never a more important time to have women's voices in the Dail". The abortion debate had been conducted primarily by men and, like many women, I felt disempowered and diminished at the fundamentalism of the discourse.

I was elected but the substantive issue of wording in the referendum was defeated by a coalition of conservatives and liberals. For pro-life voters, the wording that allowed abortion where there was a real and substantial risk to the life, as distinct from the health of the mother marked the slippery slope to abortion. For the liberals it fell short of adequate protection of the mother's rights. So the issue got parked with legislation being limited to abortion-related travel and information, which I handled as opposition health spokesperson.

Every now and then a hard case erupts on the false calm of the status quo, causing temporary discomfort and moral handwringing. Thousands of Irish women have since had abortions in England. It has been a masterpiece of official denial.

When faced with clarifying in legislation when and in what circumstances there can be a legal abortion on medical grounds, successive governments over 20 years have fled like mice to the floorboards.

So where are we now? The Labour party has a clear commitment to legislate. Fine Gael, in all its diversity, appears equivocal and divided, although Minister James Reilly is on the record that this government would not be the seventh government to avoid the issue.

But as recently as July, this prompted a group of FG deputies to ominously declare their opposition to any proposal to legislate for the X Case. And to add to the pressure cooker, the minister's formal response to the judgment of the European Court in the A,B and C cases, which criticised Ireland's lack of legal clarity, is due at the end of the month.

The people are angry. The skies are darkening over Leinster House. Young people are disbelieving of this state of affairs. Fianna Fail has called for an "independent enquiry" but one notes, not for legislation. Listening to Senator Ivana Bacik, it looks like Labour women are not for turning on this. The blue shirts are wrestling with their consciences. Mr Reilly is in the last chance saloon with the expert report on his desk.

This may be the first real test of coalition unity beyond fiscal matters. With the story making headlines all over the world, it's just as well the vote on the UN Human Rights Council is done and dusted.

Irish Independent

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