THE failure of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to internally debate their position – either way – on abortion for a decade has come back to bite the parties. Burying their heads in the sand means the two traditionally largest parties are now caught out when the issue has come to a head.
The question of whether there will be an open vote on forthcoming abortion legislation is most pertinent to them – more so to Fine Gael as a government party. Fianna Fail has the get-out clause of being in opposition.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore have firmly and repeatedly ruled out any open vote on the issue. "All members of the Government parties, as is normal, will be expected to support that," Mr Gilmore reiterated yesterday.
After a heated debate and an inhouse expert group report, the party formally adopted the position of legislating for the X case. It was a compromise, as there were elements in the party who wanted to go further – and there still are – but it has held the line since.
Likewise, Sinn Fein's policy dates to the X case and the party's ard fheis of 1992, which again is a compromise position. Last year, the party's ard fheis rejected a proposal to allow a free vote on any abortion legislation.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have tried to ignore the question. The last time the parties adopted a formal policy on the substantive issue was in the failed abortion referendum of 2002.
The March 2002 referendum was the 25th amendment to give Constitutional status to the Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy Act. On foot of a promise to the pro-life movement in the 1997 general election, then- Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail/ PD coalition government effectively moved to prevent a woman's suicidal state being grounds for abortion.
Fine Gael, led by Michael Noonan at the time, opposed the referendum on the grounds it was a flawed and unsafe proposal. Mr Noonan also committed to bring forward legislation in line with the X case, if his party got into government.
But the party's position was divisive with many TDs staying away from the campaign and former leader John Bruton actually calling for a Yes vote. Bruised by two decades of abortion debates, the Civil War parties have ignored the question and held a general but vague pro-life position.
Although it wasn't contained in its manifesto, Fine Gael did promise in pre-election letters not to legislate for abortion. But, as Pat Rabbitte would say, isn't that what you do in a general election?
Fine Gael is now faced with having to vote for legislation on an issue it hasn't defined a position on or thrashed out among its membership.
Fianna Fail is dancing a jig around the issue for the past few months. The party's position has progressed from calling for the expert group report to be published, then to be debated, then for the Government to announce its decision, then for the decision to be debated, then for consultation and then for the legislation to be published.
To be fair to Fianna Fail's health spokesman Billy Kelleher, he has asked relevant questions along the way. But he and party leader Micheal Martin have deliberately and singularly avoided saying exactly where they stand on the forthcoming legislation.
The party's position is pro-life, but acknowledging whatever actions are needed to protect the life of the mother should be taken.
Mr Martin also has expressed reservations on the suicide question. The party has obviously never said it would legislate for X.
But what exactly Fianna Fail will do when the legislation is published is anyone's guess as there is a group, particularly in the Seanad, who do not want any legislation. Having an open vote would be a cop-out, but it's a benefit of opposition.
Fine Gael don't have the luxury and there are about 25 TDs and senators with concerns – particularly around the suicide question.
The hearings of the Oireachtas health committee on abortion this week have seen some pointed contributions from some of this cohort, including Michael Creed, Billy Timmins, Terence Flanagan and Paul Bradford. The threats of resignations from the parliamentary party ought not be underestimated as it could happen.
But an open vote is not the answer. When their party enters power, a TD signs up to supporting all the government's policies. Coalition TDs can't start picking and choosing which policies they want to support if they want to remain part of the make-up of that government.
When does the list of issues of moral conscience end?
How does a TD explain being forced to vote with the Government for cuts to respite care grants but then against the Coalition on another issue?
The floodgates open and TDs decide a cutback in their constituency can't be supported, but there are no consequences.
Ultimately, TDs will put more pressure on themselves if they allow a precedent. Besides, it might suit a number of TDs to have the excuse of being under the party whip.
The farcical case of former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave voting against his own government on laws regulating contraceptives won't be repeated.
"We've grown a lot since 1974," a minister wryly observed yesterday.
After 14 years of being out of power, Fine Gael TDs have to make up their mind if they want to be in government or opposition.