Sunday 23 October 2016

Enda's referendas: a new Irish fairytale

The Taoiseach appears to be out of touch with reality; someone should do something

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Probably my favourite moment in Irish sport was when Roy Keane scored a late try against Real Madrid in the final furlong of the Pro-Am steeplechase at Wimbledon in 1979.

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Awesome, I said to Dunphy.

I've seen better, says he.

Now, you can tell two things from that first paragraph. First, the writer knows nothing about sport, but wants to appear to know a lot; and, second, the writer is detached from reality.

What do we do if a taoiseach does something, in full view of the Dail, that's the political equivalent of the mumbo-jumbo in that first paragraph?

Well, something like that happened on Wednesday. And the answer is: we pretend it didn't happen.

It was covered appropriately in Broadsheet and The Journal, but the officer class of the media have ignored it.

Nothing to see here, move on, bottle of smoke.

Now, this wasn't one of those things in which Enda makes up stories about stuff that didn't happen. And I'm certain he wasn't trying to mislead the Dail.

It's much more serious than that.

Here's what happened.

Enda Kenny was fielding questions on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which limits the ability of the Oireachtas to legislate on abortion.

His new time-wasting idea is to throw the issue to a "citizens' assembly".

No one has yet told Enda that we already have a citizens' assembly: it's called the Dail.

The point of this new citizens' assembly is that it will take time to be assembled, it will take time to deliberate, and it will take more time to report. It will then take time for the Cabinet to consider the report. The point, in short, is to take the pressure off the Dail to actually do anything.

In the course of talking about this assembly, Enda set the record straight on the will of the people.

"In 1983, the Eighth Amendment was introduced into the Bunreacht na hEireann, the Irish Constitution, by the Irish people." And here it comes: "There were three referenda after that. And, in each case, in each of those referenda . . . the people decided to keep that reference in the Constitution."

Now, that didn't happen. Nothing that could be mistaken for that happened.

The Taoiseach thinks there were three separate referenda in which the people chose to retain the Eighth Amendment.

It's the Taoiseach's genuine understanding of an issue of the utmost seriousness. But, it's pure fantasy.

What did happen was that the Supreme Court ruled that the intent of a pregnant woman to commit suicide could, because of the Eighth Amendment, be a reason to allow an abortion.

Twice, in 1992 and 2002, politicians asked the people to overrule the Supreme Court, to vote down suicidal intent as a cause for allowing a choice of an abortion. Twice, the people refused.

For politicians, and others opposed to choice on abortion, it has for decades been of the utmost importance that pregnant women have access to abortion in the UK. Without that outlet, pressure would build up to allow abortion here.

So, when in 1992 the law virtually detained a 13-year-old pregnant rape victim, denying her family the choice of a UK abortion, politicians were upset. They quickly campaigned to put into the Constitution the right to information on UK abortion facilities, and the right to travel abroad for an abortion.

Many allegedly 'pro-life' people also took the position that abortion must be denied here, but the abortion trail to the UK had to be constitutionally protected.

Enda Kenny has been in the Dail since 1975. He witnessed the dramas and the debates over these matters. He has, as Taoiseach, a determining influence on legislation in this area, and he has very set views on the issue.

Somehow, in his mind, these events morphed into three separate referenda to abolish the Eighth Amendment, in which the people refused to do so.

Ruth Coppinger immediately intervened: "Sorry, Ceann Comhairle, that's completely . . . the people did not vote on the Eighth Amendment . . ."

The Ceann Comhairle, Sean O Fearghail, was in the Dail during most of those long-ago events. He must know the Taoiseach was talking nonsense. He dismissed Coppinger's helpful attempt to set the record straight: "Will you let the Taoiseach answer, please," he said.

Sitting beside the Taoiseach, Simon Coveney and Finian McGrath remained tight-lipped.

Coppinger and Brid Smith were factually right. The Taoiseach was so far wrong it's alarming. Very serious problems have arisen because of the Eighth Amendment, and the man who is directing the legislative response genuinely misunderstands the history he lived through and the expressed will of voters.

As a consequence, he's playing silly 'citizens' assembly' games with an issue that is causing real pain to women - not least, those who face the tragedy of fatal foetal abnormalities.

I have no idea how a man in such a position can be so mistaken about matters of fact. It's possible that Enda is pretending to be confused, but I can't see why he would do that.

What I do know is that this nonsense is fine with Fine Gael, it's fine with Fianna Fail, it's fine with Labour.

The decision of the media to ignore the Taoiseach's state of mind will, in some quarters, be dismissed as yet another conspiracy against the truth. I don't agree.

The state of politics is fragile right now. It's all about shadow games and fancy footwork.

Last week, Labour put through a motion based on the lousy treatment given to the Clerys' workers. The motion suggests that if only Labour was in government, workers' rights would be improved.

It was portrayed as a great achievement by Brendan Howlin to defeat the Government. Nice stroke, Brendan.

The citizens know that Labour was in government during the Clerys scandal, and did nothing.

The citizens know Labour is now cynically striking leftie poses, trying to win back those who left the party during its five years of betrayal ("Come on back, comrades, things will be different this time").

The citizens know Fianna Fail refused to take office with Fine Gael because it can play games from the Opposition benches, seeking to rehabilitate itself. At the same time, it pushes through the right-wing economic policies the two parties share.

The citizens know two months were squandered setting up this con. They know this is about Enda desperate to get a second term, just so he can say he did.

They know, too, that Fine Gael flew a kite to see if it could stretch the holidays to three months. They know this is a period of legislative prevarication, of shape throwing, in preparation for the next election.

They can see the welfare of the people matters little when there's political shadow dancing to be done.

And when the media accommodates to the shape-throwing, it devalues its own credibility.

Seriously, though, that Roy Keane try against Real Madrid, that was a moment to savour. I've just to close my eyes now and, clear as anything, I can see Roy celebrating - throwing his racquet in the air, leaping over the net . . .

Magic, it was.

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