John Downing: Why divisive X-case legacy could blow up in Taoiseach's face
ENDA Kenny has taken the first steps in a very tricky process which will define his term as Taoiseach. The issue of abortion sits right on the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition fault-line. It also sits on the old dividing line in his own party between traditionalists and advocates of change. If he can successfully put through a compromise which deals with the sensitive issues involved, he will have resolved a 30-year-old intractable issue and be entitled to considerable political kudos.
But failure to deal with this matter could be calamitous for Mr Kenny and his government.
The one thing the Taoiseach has consistently said on the abortion issue is that he will not for one second countenance a free vote of TDs and senators. Mr Kenny is insistent that a workable compromise must be framed after a full debate.
Thereafter, if a party TD or senator does not vote for the draft law which emerges, then he or she will lose the party whip. The stakes are high – and it all could result in the loss of some key Fine Gael figures; it could also drive a dangerous and potentially fatal wedge between FG and Labour in Government.
The Taoiseach must seize and keep personal control of this issue. It is nominally the direct responsibility of Health Minister Dr James Reilly. But Dr Reilly has shown himself to be a very unsafe pair of political hands over the past year. He will not have the confidence of Labour especially, and quite probably many within Fine Gael, to safely guide this issue home.
The statement issued by Dr Reilly yesterday afternoon mentions neither 'abortion' nor 'suicide'. But these words are central to the issues which must now be decided.
In February 1992 the Supreme Court ruled in the notorious X case that if there was a real and substantial risk to a mother's life, as distinct to her health, and this life risk could only be averted by an abortion, then such an abortion would be lawful. The court also found that the mother, known only as X and pregnant as a result of rape, had threatened to commit suicide if obliged to carry the pregnancy to full term and this was a real and substantial risk to her life.
A referendum in November 1992 established the rights of travel outside the State for an abortion and the right of access to abortion information. But a third proposition, which would have removed suicide as grounds for an abortion, was defeated by a ratio of two to one.
For over 20 years a state of legal limbo persisted. The current Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, did huge work on the issue in late 2001 and on March 6, 2002, the matter was again put to a vote in a referendum.
Among other things, this proposition would have removed a suicide threat as valid grounds for termination. It was lost this time by a very narrow margin of 50.4pc to 49.6pc with just four out of 10 voters turning out.
For the last decade most politicians avoided the issue. But just two years ago this week the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights upheld the case of a distressed mother known only as 'C' that she was entitled to an accessible and effective procedure to a decision on her entitlement to an abortion on health grounds.
Yesterday's government decision – to proceed by legislation setting out the principles and backed up by ministerial regulation to handle details – adopts the report of an expert committee responding to the human rights ruling. The relative speed with which the Government has responded to this issue now suggests that Labour demands are being met.
But Mr Kenny will also have to be very sensitive to those who fear the suicide grounds for permitting an abortion may be the start of a process making abortion more widely available in Ireland. On Sunday night, the Junior EU Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton said on RTE's 'The Week in Politics' that she has concerns about how a danger of suicide was to be defined.
Ms Creighton said her view was widely held within the party.
It all suggests that the most restrictive grounds for defining a suicide threat may be brought in either by statute or regulation. But such a move might not be enough – and losing one of the brightest lights in the government team during Ireland's EU Presidency would be calamitous
And even if a restrictive suicide provision was enough it might well result in alienating many Labour TDs and senators.
In a worst case scenario it may mean grim choices as this issue is expected to be played out between January and Easter of next year.
It all leaves Mr Kenny walking a tightrope.