Fionnan Sheahan

Saturday 2 August 2014

Kenny has left abortion issue in less-than-safe pair of hands

Published 26/04/2013|04:00

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THE Labour Party doesn't trust him on anything. Fine Gael backbenchers don't trust him on much – and certainly not on abortion.

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He has a well-established reputation for being accident-prone. He is a less-than-safe pair of political hands. And yet Enda Kenny has left the sensitive issue of abortion with Dr James Reilly.

Unsurprisingly, the draft legislation has ended up as a major bone of contention between the two coalition parties. It was always going to be so and there is much merit in the issues at hand being debated thoroughly among ministers.

However, the manner in which Dr Reilly has handled the affair has failed to reassure either Labour, Fine Gael or the general public.

Following Dr Reilly's failure to engage properly with his junior coalition partners, Labour ministers have been distancing themselves from any suggestion of a joint effort in the drafting of legislation stating that there will be six doctors involved in approving a termination where there is a risk of suicide.

"Do you honestly think we'd have come up with something like that?" a Labour source asked rhetorically.

The presence of two Labour junior ministers in Health provided the obvious means to formulate the legislation within the department. Instead, Dr Reilly ignored Kathleen Lynch and Alex White and failed to seek the input of Labour. Hence the current stalemate.

From saying a week ago that the Heads of the Bill would be available this week, Mr Kenny is now uncertain about passing the legislation by the summer.

He and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore had to intervene by appointing a working group, comprised of Dr Reilly and Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald on the Fine Gael side and Mr White and Ms Lynch on the Labour end.

But once again Labour is left less than enamoured by Dr Reilly's behaviour.

His economy with the truth on the proposals for six consultants to assess each case was found out when it emerged that the legislation did contain such a provision.

Not content with digging a hole for himself, he continued yesterday when the Irish Independent printed the latest draft of the legislation, showing the 'six consultants' plan.

His politically-appointed press adviser began suggesting to media organisations that the matter had moved on, but then had to admit knowing nothing about the content of the legislation.

"Somebody suggested to me that it was an early draft," the spokesman said. The anonymous "somebody" was not identified.

Fine Gael backbenchers are also on the tail of their deputy leader. Ever since Dr Reilly unilaterally announced last summer that the Government would be legislating for abortion, he has been viewed with suspicion among conservative backbenchers.

The anger stems from the current negotiations being irrelevant in the broader debate of whether or not there should be legislation at all – and whether the suicide grounds should be included. Conceding this principle is what has annoyed the Fine Gael backbenches.

Once the terms of reference were given to the Expert Group in November 2011, the outcome pointed in only one direction – guidelines, regulations, legislation.

"It was done and dusted. The game was over from Government once that decision was taken. There is a view that a lot of our cabinet members were asleep at the wheel," a Fine Gael backbencher said.

The publication of the Expert Group report just happened to coincide with the heightening of awareness of the legislative status of abortion, through the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.

In the wake of the public outcry, Labour pushed for action and the Taoiseach was initially calling for calm.

Mr Kenny soon changed his stance and moved in favour of legislation for the X Case, much to the chagrin of some in Fine Gael.

"Kenny doesn't have conviction. In my view, he doesn't want this brought in, I'd say he's very pro-life, as much as anybody else in the party. But he bolted under pressure from Labour and the public," a Fine Gael TD said.

In meetings at cabinet and ministerial level, Mr Kenny has stayed away from the detail, choosing instead to focus on areas where there is agreement.

Judging by his language and past record on moral issues, Mr Kenny is doubtless uncomfortable about having to pass the legislation.

However, he does have to accept responsibility for the conflict currently tearing at his Coalition and party as greater caution was required than leaving his less-than-able lieutenant in charge of the process and unsupervised.

Irish Independent

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