Eoghan Harris

Thursday 31 July 2014

Kenny plays Kennedy card as Labour left looking foolish

Eoghan Harris

Published 16/06/2013|04:00

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The Taoiseach has shown a sure touch from start to finish in promoting the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. I say finish because Kenny's playing of the JFK card has secured him massive public backing. Hence he can take a hard line with hand-wringers.

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Kenny's sound bite about not being a Catholic Taoiseach was most likely lifted from JFK's famous speech to Protestant ministers at Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1960, when he cut his Catholicism in two: "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic."

Compare that with Kenny's: "I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach." Pity that Kenny did not dump the preamble and tighten up the antithesis – as the media has done since – to make it read cleanly: "I am a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, not a Catholic Taoiseach."

But the borrowing was still a deft adaptation that drafted Kennedy to the cause of Kenny. As a bonus, the sound bite also had a secular republican ring, that secured a round of applause from Labour and Sinn Fein and left Fianna Fail looking graceless. How could a "republican" party fail to applaud a speech with such republican resonances?

But then Fianna Fail has been floddling on all aspects of abortion. Micheal Martin took bad advice at the start by not making a virtue of necessity and allowing a free vote. Apart from giving the party a transparent image, it would have accorded with the growing public concern about Kenny's autocratic presidential style which is fuelling pro-Seanad sentiment.

Fianna Fail is reportedly now taking advice from fence-sitters who went silent when things were tough. These fair-weather friends mistakenly believe Fianna Fail can coast back to power without getting blood on its shirt. Hence the failure to follow up on the Lowry tapes.

But the party is foolish to believe it can get back without a bitter battle. Recent polls are protest polls rather than positive responses to superior policies. As such, they are soft polls because protest voters are easily swayed by last-minute seductions.

What Michael Noonan is now doing for Limerick, Fine Gael can do for the country leading up to the next general election. So Fianna Fail can forget working on its tan while waiting to be wafted back into power. Unless it can land the kind of crippling blow that lingers long in the public mind, Fine Gael will secure an overall majority at the next general election.

Meantime, I want to point out two political problems that will persist long after the PLDP Bill passes into law. One problem leads back to Kennedy, and concerns what it means to be a Roman Catholic politician. The other leads back to the Labour Party and concerns what it means to be a socialist politician.

Kennedy was the first Catholic politician to claim he could cut his conscience in two. Back in 1960, after polls before the West Virginia primary showed his Catholicism might be costing him 20 points, Kennedy decided on a showdown speech in Houston where he claimed he could leave his Roman Catholicism behind in a closed box when he became president.

But he was still lucky that three Latin American-based bishops only raised the abortion issue on the eve of the election. As it was a close-run thing anyway, had they done so earlier he might have lost. Conservative Catholics today are a far more formidable force. And they are far from respectful when reviewing the results of Kennedy trying to have it both ways back in 1960.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, in a powerful critique two years ago on the anniversary of the Houston speech, called it "sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong". In his closely reasoned review, he pointed out that although Kennedy had promised not to "disavow my views or my church in order to win this election", his Houston speech did just that – disavowed his church's teaching to pull off the presidency. Chaput has a compelling case.

Call me old-fashioned, but surely being a practising Roman Catholic, or a practising member of the Labour Party, calls for fidelity to a few fundamental beliefs? Surely if Fine Gael Roman Catholics really believe the Pope is infallible, or Labour really believes women have the right to decide what to do with their bodies, they should match their words with deeds in Dail Eireann – or else pack in paying lip service both to Roman Catholicism and socialism, as I have publicly done?

Labour knows the Protection of Life Bill is a cowardly concession to Fine Gael backbenchers and Roman Catholic reactionaries. That is why they fell silent during John Halligan's powerful speech. Halligan rejected the right of the Roman Catholic Church to take the high moral ground on abortion, given its historical record ranging from the Crusades, to the Inquisition, to the Nazis to child sex abuse.

By now you may also want to ask where I stand on abortion. My answer is: at some distance. By which I mean I believe that abortion is an issue for women to debate and decide. Frankly, the spectacle of middle-aged male senators getting their spectacles misted up talking about female fertility makes me sick.

So I am happy to support what sensible women like my colleague Carol Hunt have to say. Last Friday on Newstalk, Carol made five cogent criticisms of the bill: that it does not decriminalise abortion; that it still leaves a legal limbo; that 4,000 Irish women will still have to travel to Britain for an abortion every year; that this legislation will not lay the problem to rest; and the abortion issue will arise again.

Hunt did not have to point out that her criticisms left the Labour Party dangling on a hook of hypocrisy. Labour should have led a campaign for a referendum to reform the law on abortion root and branch. Instead, as it has done on every major issue, it cowered close to Fine Gael.

Let me be clear. I am not a Trotskyite. I do not believe in forlorn hopes. If Labour was rolling a rock up a hill I would say leave off. But what makes its cowardice more contemptible is that the polls clearly show there is a fair wind for reform. A new generation is crying out for courageous leadership.

According to the recent Irish Times poll, 84 per cent feel that abortion should be allowed when the woman's life is at risk. And 37 per cent felt that abortion should be provided when a woman deems it to be in her best interest. Labour has failed to give leadership to that growing constituency.

Given its own figures, the Irish Times has let Labour down lightly. But it has been letting its own liberal columnists down lightly too. Wittering about cyclists while remaining silent on Lowry and Labour is literally dodging the column. On these issues only Vincent Browne is giving value for money.

Irish Independent

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