Sunday 23 November 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Kenny's views will be key to abortion debate

Published 20/12/2012 | 17:00

ABOUT a month back, a pro-life activist took offence at the conclusion in this newspaper that legislation for the X case had become the bare minimum in terms of the direction of Government policy.

The argument was that there was still a significant-enough group within Fine Gael who were committed to blocking legislation on abortion.

Besides, there was also plenty of resistance in Sinn Fein to keep the Labour Party in check.

This week, the Labour Party issued the following statement: "Labour policy vindicated by Government decision to legislate for X case".

It's hard to dispute the conclusion.

After 20 years of debate, legislating for the X case has become government policy, quite literally overnight.

The pace at which mindsets have changed has been staggering for those on either extreme side of the argument – but it has been in the pipeline since the formation of the coalition, and there has been ample warning the mood had changed.

The most obvious sign of change came in the Dail debate in May on the legislation drafted by Clare Daly on the X case.

Ms Daly herself set the tone with a calm and measured presentation – in pleasantly stark contrast to the vicious debates of the previous three decades.

Her lead was followed by TDs from both sides of the spectrum, who also made their points in a reflective fashion.

Health Minister Dr James Reilly went off-script to commit the coalition to not becoming the seventh government to refuse to deal with the X case.

Coming from the Government's senior representative in the debate and the deputy leader in the larger coalition party, it was quite a declaration.

Dr Reilly suffered a backlash at his next parliamentary party meeting, when Fine Gael backbenchers reminded him of their party's position.

In a heated debate at a party meeting of Fine Gael TDs and senators, Dr Reilly was cautioned the issue could "rip the party apart".

However, the process was well in train and the Health Minister's comments were to prove prophetic.

In the negotiations on the Programme for Government, the coalition had reached the compromise of setting up an expert group to examine the outcome of the A, B, C judgment in the European Court on Human Rights.

When that expert group was set up, there was only going to be one outcome, and that would involve action to some degree – most likely legislation, but regulation at the very least.

The terms of reference of Judge Sean Ryan's expert group didn't really allow for no conclusions to be drawn. Once the expert group reported, the Government would find the report difficult to ignore for the remainder of its term in office.

Undoubtedly, the Savita Halappanavar case did prove to be a game-changer in terms of attitudes to abortion and the circumstances in which it is allowed under the law in this country.

The time for sitting on the fence ended quite rapidly, even if it did take the Taoiseach himself some time to realise it.

The Government's rather historic decision of this week to introduce legislation and regulations was far from the seismic event expected more than a month ago.

The Labour Party is in favour of legislating for the X case, likewise Sinn Fein and a section of the independents and small parties.

FIANNA Fail is still firmly rooted to the spot and refusing to express a view either way. Ultimately, Micheal Martin will have to show his hand.

The Government, of which Fine Gael is the majority part, is now also of the view that X case legislation is appropriate – whether a sizeable number of its TDs likes it or not.

Fine Gael figures do expect to lose a number of TDs over the abortion legislation, which will be a difficult path for the party.

In a debate where the focus continues to shift, the test attached to the suicide grounds has become the new frontline.

Anything up to 15 TDs are regarded within the party as extremely concerned about the legislation and the suicide question:

• In Dublin, Lucinda Creighton, Peter Mathews, Derek Keating and Terence Flanagan;

• In Leinster, James Bannon, John-Paul Phelan and Billy Timmins;

• In Connaught-Ulster, John O'Mahony, Michelle Mulherin, Brian Walsh and Tony McLoughlin;

• In Munster, Pat Breen, Tom Hayes, Michael Creed, Patrick O'Donovan and John Deasy.

After this week's decision, many are holding fire until the legislation and regulations start to take shape.

Their last refuge though is the belief the Taoiseach will not sign up to anything he can't live with himself.

"Enda Kenny is not a liberal and certainly in relation to this issue, he has been anything but. That is what we are saying to ourselves. Our safety net is his personal views," a party TD said.

Enda Kenny's conscience is 'The Alamo' in the abortion debate.

Irish Independent

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