Labour has a liberal shot left, and it's not abortion
The junior coalition party will lose sight of what is actually attainable if it gets distracted, says Fionnan Sheahan
Published 24/08/2014 | 02:30
Won't it be a great boost to the status of the Seanad to have a referendum initiated there. The proposal will emerge from an all-party committee made up of members of the Upper House, the Senate chamber will host hearings to listen to the views of experts and the legislation will evolve from the deliberations to be then passed on to the Dail for ratification.
Within months, there'll be a referendum on abortion to repeal the eighth amendment to the Constitution from 1983, which acknowledged the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.
At least, that's the only conclusion to be drawn from the statement this week from the lead representative of the junior coalition party in the Seanad.
"Labour has long taken liberal stances on social issues such as contraception and divorce. In line with this tradition, we should now seek political agreement for a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment within the remaining term of this Government," Labour Party Senator Ivana Bacik wrote.
Go ahead, Senator.
What's stopping you?
Labour's leader in the Seanad is closely aligned with Tanaiste Joan Burton, who she backed from the off in the party leadership contest.
Unfortunately, Senator Bacik is one of many in the Labour Party who conveniently forget occasionally that the party is actually in power.
It reached epidemic proportions this week in the wake of the disturbing case of a baby being delivered by Caesarean section 25 weeks into the pregnancy as the mother, a vulnerable young asylum seeker, was a suicidal rape victim.
In the clamour for action, the Labour Party press office issued a statement on behalf of a number of grassroots groups calling on the Government to "immediately" table an abortion referendum.
Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan was rolled out to peddle the actual party line that there would be no further moves to change abortion laws under this Coalition.
"It isn't possible to deal with broader issues under the terms of the constitution and, realistically, there isn't going to be a referendum in the lifetime of the Government," she said.
The minister said the legislation was being monitored and she believed "a future government will have to look at another referendum".
Labour's rush to the polls for a referendum meant the party missed the opportunity to actually be seen to get to the bottom of the causes of this harrowing incident.
Fine Gael's Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was the first to express concern for the mother and baby.
Fine Gael's Health Minister Leo Varadkar told the HSE he wanted a report on the matter.
Fine Gael's Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said the HSE report had to be delivered swiftly, the Cabinet had to be briefed as soon as possible so options could be considered.
Labour had the chance to ask about how this case came about, the flaws in the system that allows a distressed, pregnant asylum seeker to fall through numerous cracks in inadequate supports, and the reasons behind the HSE getting a special sitting of the High court on a Bank Holiday Saturday to seek a care order for the woman.
Uncomfortable questions have to be answered by both the HSE and the Department of Justice.
Instead, elements of Labour became obsessed with calling for something it knows cannot be achieved. Indeed, the party arguably doesn't even have a mandate from the people to call for a referendum.
The Labour Party manifesto from the 2011 general election is quite clear on this point: "Labour in government will legislate in accordance with the Supreme Court judgment in the X Case, and the recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights."
From there came the expert group on the ECHR ruling, its recommendations on legislation to regulate abortion in certain circumstances, including the suicide grounds, the preparation of legislation and the ultimate passing of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act, 2013, which was divisive and cost Fine Gael five TDs and two Senators.
That process took over two years from the Coalition coming to power and the medical guidelines for following the legislation still haven't even been finalised.
To go down the referendum route would take how long?
What question would be posed to the people?
Would it be just the repeal of the amendment or new wording?
Would abortion be limited to rape and fatal foetal abnormality?
Would abortion be freely available?
And if those types of questions are not answered satisfactorily, do they really expect people to vote for a vague outline and have confidence in the political system to fill in the rest?
It's far more complex than just "immediately" tabling a referendum. The Labour Party can spend the remaining 18 months of the lifetime of this Government distracted by unattainable goals. Or the party can focus solely on the one achievable aspect of what would have traditionally been regarded as the liberal agenda, but for many now is just a mainstream equality issue -gay marriage.
Party figures can further antagonise their partners in Fine Gael by talking about an abortion referendum, recognition of ethnic minorities who are Irish anyway, hate crime laws and all the right-on legislation it wants.
But Labour has to realise that in the minds of some, the traditionally liberal issues are interconnected. The 'No' campaigners in the same-sex marriage referendum will portray it as just the latest step on a road to further societal change, including abortion. Contraception, divorce, gay marriage, abortion: it's a predictable argument.
And some within their Coalition partners in Fine Gael are not entirely comfortable with supporting same-sex marriage. Just look at the Taoiseach's slow conversion to the cause.
There isn't going to be an abortion referendum under this Government.
There is going to be a same-sex marriage referendum. It's eminently winnable, provided it remains the sole priority.