News Analysis

Sunday 21 September 2014

Ronan Fanning: Panicked and shamed into action

Enda Kenny's U-turn on a Savita inquiry was done to save face as our EU presidency looms

Ronan Fanning

Published 02/12/2012 | 05:00

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Twenty years ago, when the news broke of the Supreme Court's judgment on the X case and I wanted to write an article for the Sunday Independent, I lived in Ballyfad, near Coolgreaney on the border of Wexford and Wicklow. But first I had to read the judgment, which was easier said than done before internet access. So Willie Kealy put a copy on the next bus to Wexford and I collected it from The Chocolate Box, a shop beside the bus stop in Arklow's main street.

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I shall never forget the cold rage that consumed me when I read the now famous words of Judge Niall McCarthy: "The failure by the legislature to enact the appropriate legislation is no longer just unfortunate; it is inexcusable. What are pregnant women to do? What are the parents of a pregnant girl under age to do? What are the medical profession to do? They have no guidelines save what may be gleaned from the judgments in this case."

Twenty years and seven governments later, we are now where we were then. But this time the wave of rage triggered by the death of Indian dentist Savita Halappanavar is a tsunami of unstoppable force that has caught up every decent man and woman not only in Ireland but in the wider world.

In other circumstances one might have felt sorry for any government in office when this foul bird of ill-omen came home to roost. But Enda Kenny and his colleagues forfeited the right to sympathy by the insensitivity with which they at first treated Praveen Halappanavar and Savita's family in India.

Mr Kenny's initial reaction, caught on television, spoke volumes: "I'm not going to be rushed into a situation by force of numbers on either side." Rushed! Twenty years on and he's complaining about being rushed. But it's scarcely surprising given that it was Mr Kenny who refused to incorporate the specific commitment in the Labour Party's election manifesto to introduce legislation to implement the Supreme Court judgment in the X case in the Programme for Government.

The second insensitivity was the inclusion of not one, not two, but three consultants from Galway University Hospital on the HSE's proposed inquiry team, a move that made about as much sense as inviting three of the senior executives of Anglo Irish Bank to participate in an inquiry into that debacle.

Praveen Halappanavar put it better than I ever could: "I have seen the way my wife Savita was treated and I have no confidence in the HSE."

And who can blame him for insisting on an independent inquiry given his assertion that the case notes he has already seen reveal in the minutest detail requests for cups of tea and an extra blanket but are silent or missing on her repeated requests for the abortion of a foetus (the first of which Praveen claims she made six days before her death) which she and her doctors agreed was doomed to die.

The third insensitivity was Mr Kenny's megaphone diplomacy in the Dail when his appeal to Praveen Halappanavar to meet the chairman of the HSE inquiry was both patronising and bullying: patronising in his cringe-making reference to Mr Halappanavar as "a decent man" and bullying in his shameless attempt to use the floor of the Dail and national television to break Mr Halappanavar's will. But, as anyone who watched his dignified and devastating Prime Time interview will agree, Praveen Halappanavar is not for turning.

And so Mr Kenny changed his mind. Time is the enemy of rage. That is why politicians always play for time when confronted by public fury. Kick for touch, burble about not being rushed, speak gravely of the need for calm and hope that rage will dissipate with the passage of time. But that strategy, if it merits being so described, disintegrated in the face of Praveen Halappanavar's calm determination reinforced by the certainty of continuous public demonstrations.

Speaking after last Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, the beleaguered Dr James Reilly, were singing from a very different hymn sheet. The Government has now decided to "make its views known" before Christmas and, after public hearings before the Joint Committee on Health and Children from January 8 to 10, legislation will follow. Nor will the Taliban element in Fine Gael be allowed the loophole of a free vote. "People who are elected to the party that I lead," declared Mr Kenny in Cardiff, "act and vote in accordance with party decisions. And that is the way it will be."

All of which puts Lucinda Creighton, the Minister of State for European Affairs, on the spot after what has been described as her "impassioned" contribution to Tuesday's meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party. Ms Creighton is apparently among those deputies who feel they are being "press-ganged" – this 20 years after the X case judgment – and insists that Fine Gael has no mandate to legislate for abortion. She should ponder the words of President Harry Truman: "If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen."

What makes Ms Creigh-ton's stance especially self-indulgent is that her ministerial responsibilities must have made her more aware than Fine Gael backbenchers with a more parochial perspective of how our reputation in Europe has suffered. And herein lies another reason for Mr Kenny's sudden change of tack.

Ireland assumes the presidency of the European Union in the new year. One shudders to think of what our ambassadors in European capitals have been reporting, but Mr Gilmore, as is his responsibility as Minister for Foreign Affairs, will doubtless have brought their grim tidings to the Cabinet's attention. Ireland's previous presidential terms, notwithstanding our small size and limited resources, have been markedly successful. This time the unresolved crisis over the European budget together with the continuing struggle to ease the draconian terms of our own bailout make the task more onerous than ever.

The prospect that the influx of European journalists covering the Irish presidency would have been met at every turn by protesters waving placards bearing the picture of Savita Halappanavar and demanding justice in her name was too horrendous for Mr Kenny to contemplate. In the last analysis, not only the well-being of women but the national interest in the widest sense demanded that the Government move immediately to lance a festering abscess that has made the name of Ireland stink not only in European nostrils but throughout the civilised world.

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin.

Sunday Independent

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