Saturday 27 August 2016

Mairtin Mac Cormaic: My interview with Fine Gaeler may have sparked original amendment

Mairtin Mac Cormaic

Published 05/05/2013 | 05:00


I think I may have been partly responsible for the Pro-Life Amendment to the Constitution in 1983 which led to all the confusion about the law on abortion in the intervening years. That was because of an interview I did in 1981 with a 20-year-old medical student from Listowel in Kerry who had just been elected Vice-President of Fine Gael.

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Her election came as a major shock to the party hierarchy. Up to then, the Vice-Presidency of Fine Gael had been an honour bestowed only on elderly men who had devoted their lives to the party.

At the party's Ard Fheis in Dublin that year the contestants for Vice-President were the veteran Limerick businessman George Edward Russell, a former TD and Senator, and the young unknown Maria Stack, a medical student in University College Galway. Russell was expected to be a shoo-in; his election was a foregone conclusion so he did little canvassing. Maria Stack, on the other hand, had the support of her colleagues in Young Fine Gael who had their homework done and managed to secure the votes of the majority of delegates at the Ard Fheis. The party grandees were horrified that these upstarts in Young Fine Gael were able to beat them at their own game. However, they had no choice but accept their defeat.

I was then a reporter with the Evening Herald and was covering the Ard Fheis on behalf of the paper. The story was, of course, about the young girl from Kerry who had beaten all the odds to become Vice-President of the party. However, during the course of the interview Ms Stack revealed that she favoured the right of a woman to choose abortion in some limited circumstances.

The interview was duly published on the front page of the following day's Evening Herald and all hell broke loose. There was murder in Fine Gael and Maria Stack was forced to resign from her position as Vice-President of the party which she had won a few days previously. The veterans had the last word.

The backlash was led by the veteran Laois/Offaly TD, Oliver J Flanagan, a papal knight best known for his defence of Catholic moral teaching in all walks of life. There was a general election due that year and the last thing that Fine Gael wanted was to be seen as pro-abortion in any circumstances. The Pro-Life movement saw their opportunity and managed to persuade a very reluctant Garret FitzGerald, who was party leader at the time, of the need to insert a clause in the Constitution guaranteeing the right to life of the unborn.

The Fianna Fail leader, one Charles J Haughey, also pledged to hold a referendum on this question if he was returned to power at the election. Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael competed with each other to become the political wing of the Pro-Life Movement.

It took about two years to come up with a constitutional clause that appeared to satisfy all sides of the pro-life campaign. The rest, of course, is history, but the amendment led to more confusion on the abortion issue than ever before.

My one big regret – apart from the fact that the amendment was carried – was that my interview with Maria Stack resulted in her being forced out of office and out of politics.

Irish Independent

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