independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

At least Kenny's conscience is now clear

When Enda's needs clashed with Lucinda's scruples the greater good had to suffer, writes Gene Kerrigan

Let's examine Lucinda's conscience. Let's look at where Lucinda's conscience has led us. Because, that's what it was all about – those late nights, that fervid Dail "debate". It was about Lucinda Creighton and Enda Kenny, their political careers and the state of their consciences.

Last week's Dail farce was supposed to be about abortion. It was supposed to be about the limit the State places on a woman's control over her reproductive potential. It was supposed to be the culmination of 30 years of debate – spurred into a new, more urgent phase by the death of Savita Halappanavar.

Serious stuff, whichever side you're on.

Instead, it became a bloated theatrical enterprise, shown live on the Oireachtas television channel. Complete with dramatic highlights, knockabout interludes and light relief. And, of course, like so many theatrical events, lubricated by lashings of drink.

The steps that led to this could hardly have been more grave, more momentous. Decades of bitter debate, social division, constitutional change.

The rape and pregnancy of a child. Supreme Court judgements, judgements of the European Court of Human Rights.

Repeated referendums, the political cowardice of one government after another, the tragedy of Savita and her family, the country shamed before the world.

Enda Kenny had no intention of legislating on this matter. Then, in the wake of Savita's death – knowing that another tragic occurrence would have even more devastating effects on this country's reputation – he allowed legislation be prepared.

If it was about abortion, about the rights of and limitations on women, the debate would have been wide and deep. Our duty to consider the consequences of rape, of incest, would have been explored and allowed for. The agony of fatal foetal abnormality too, where babies that are desperately wanted are found to be doomed – unable to survive outside the womb.

And the women are forced for months to grow the baby so it can try for several seconds to breathe, then it dies. Or they go to the UK for an abortion.

Apart from this, the simple right of any woman to act on her conscience in these matters. Not according to the conscience of anyone else.

None of this mattered last week. This wasn't about the reality of pregnancy and women's rights.

This was about Lucinda's conscience. And it was about Enda's control of his party. Again and again, we heard political reporters tell us that "the real question" was about whether it was four or eight or 15 TDs who rejected Enda's orders.

Enda is a fleeting moment. As ephemeral as a Haughey, a Bruton or a Cowen – figureheads reacting to the tides of power. Here today, gone tomorrow.

The political reporters, too. Most of the political dramas, the so-called "real questions", the "real stories", won't make even a footnote in the history books that few will bother to read.

But the pain of the laws made and the laws not made will affect citizens through the decades. That's the "real story".

On some issues, there's little to debate. I have no right to hit you on the head and take your money. I have no right to burn down your house, with you in it. Some issues, though, are widely disputed.

They involve matters of conscience and they cannot be solidified forever in a simple ban inflicted when one side happens to have a political majority.

Such a ban collides with real life, with its accidents and its tragedies, its evolving views and changing cultures.

Abortion is a matter of conscience. Not just Lucinda's. Every woman's. Lucinda has the right not to have an abortion.

She has a right to argue with others that they should not have abortions.

That is the limit of one conscience. It cannot lay down a law for all other consciences – not without depriving every other woman of the right to exercise her conscience.

The role of legislation in such matters of deeply felt dispute is to facilitate to the greatest extent the conflicting consciences of all those involved.

Enda wanted to be rid of this distasteful matter. He has other priorities. Unhappy at a prolonged legislative pregnancy, he sought to abort the process. Tell me these words were not deliberately chosen last Wednesday: "I am going to get rid of it tonight".

The debate didn't matter – he had overwhelming numbers.

And so we had the infamous late sitting. It would go to 10pm. No, midnight. No . . . on and on, on Enda's whim, until 5am. With the Dail Bar open and serving. Just like it was during the late sitting that brought the promissory note scandal.

Way back in the early Seventies, Mary Holland described a late sitting in the Dail (on the night two bombs went off in Dublin) as being "like a Kilburn pub on a Friday night". Drunken Fianna Fail TDs falling about. "Up the Republic!" said one. "Up the arse!" replied another.

Last week's debate was depressing to watch. Repetitive, rambling, sometimes sincere to the point of incoherence. Vehement, self-serving, grandstanding.

Then, the sexist "horseplay". And the very sober Labour TD who allegedly "pushed the wrong button" and voted for something he was against. Or not.

Is there an actual clown school from which would-be TDs have to graduate? Where else would we get these people?

For our homegrown "pro-life" lobby, there is one inviolable principle. There must be no direct abortion carried out within the borders of the State. Anything else is permissible.

As long as that principle held firm, the consciences of such people as Lucinda were at ease.

Abortion is permissible, but it must be an indirect consequence, or it must be called something else, like "early delivery".

The abortion trail to the UK is not alone tolerated, it is constitutionally protected. It would be possible – though requiring draconian procedures – to limit, if not eliminate, that trail. But no one is more protective of that trail than the "pro-lifers".

On this occasion, Enda needed to get through some kind of law that will allow him say – whatever future tragedy happens – it's not my fault, I did only and exactly what the Supreme Court said. Anyone who got in the way of that goal was ruthlessly dealt with.

Enda's political needs clashed with Lucinda's not-within-our-borders belief. Where have Lucinda's conscience and Enda's political needs led us?

Fintan O'Toole has already convincingly outlined what might well be the next tragedy. And Fianna Fail's Billy Kelleher last week ensured the Dail cannot claim ignorance of what it has done, should this come to pass.

What if a woman or child – pregnant in whatever circumstances – decides on abortion? And buys pills across the internet? And takes them and bleeds? That woman or that child will know she has committed an act that can get her 14 years in jail. And she may be splashed all over the media. How likely is it she will hurry to a hospital? Aware of the sheer cruelty of this, Lucinda Creighton spoke out against the 14-year sentence.

She wanted it reduced to five years. This is what passes for compassion, these days. A five-year sentence for acting in accordance with your conscience.

Lord protect us sinners from the wrath of the righteous.

Irish Independent

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