Forget abortion vote – Seanad poll is dogfight facing Kenny
Published 21/06/2013 | 17:00
ENDA Kenny has waited over two years for his first big test as Taoiseach. Then, as so often happens, two tests came along at the same time.
Between now and the Leinster House summer holidays at the end of next month, the Taoiseach will be busy fighting two battles: putting through Ireland's first ever legislation on abortion; and laying the groundwork for the abolition of the Seanad. At the start of this year, the abortion issue appeared by far the more difficult of these two tasks, while ending the Seanad looked easy. But by now those positions have been reversed.
Yesterday morning just after 11 o'clock, Health Minister James Reilly got to his feet and presented the second-stage reading of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013. The minister was strong and matter of fact in a speech clearly pitched at those within his own party who have misgivings about this legislation.
There followed a series of courteous speeches on the issue from a range of speakers on all sides. The proceedings gave a real impression that TDs from all parties, in line with the bulk of public opinion, now want this matter dealt with as quickly and quietly as possible.
Next Thursday, after six months of sometimes tiresome speculation, we will know how many Fine Gael TDs and senators are ready to invoke automatic parliamentary party expulsion by failing to vote in favour of this legislation. Just two TDs, Peter Mathews of Dublin South and Brian Walsh of Galway West, have clearly said they will vote against the Bill.
Both are entitled to respect for the sincerity of their views. Mr Walsh is entitled to extra kudos for the dignity with which he has handled this issue; declaring he could not support this legislation back in late April and remaining largely silent ever since.
But one has to doubt the accuracy of Mr Walsh's prediction on Wednesday that up to 10 Fine Gael TDs and senators would not vote for this legislation. His prediction suggested that the party could never expel 10 TDs and senators.
It is notable that Peter Mathews could not even get a seconder for his FG parliamentary party motion seeking a free-vote on the issue. Mr Kenny, buoyed up by a strong support feedback from constituency activists, has a strong hold on his parliamentary party right now.
There is no doubt that some FG TDs and senators will feel obliged to push themselves outside the party fold on this issue. But for now, senior party figures' assessments that this figure will be counted on one hand, look correct.
Mr Kenny will have been encouraged by two surveys in the past week strongly suggesting that the voters will back his plan to abolish Seanad Eireann when called to the polls at a date yet to be specified this autumn. Research company RedC, polling at the behest of bookmakers Paddy Power, found more than half of voters favour abolition while one-third back retention. Ipsos/MRBI, polling for the 'Irish Times', found that again more than half favoured scrapping the Seanad and fewer than a quarter wanted to keep it.
That is not encouraging for the eclectic band of activists opposing Seanad abolition. But it is very early days in this campaign with no real canvassing expected until after political summer holidays in September.
Mr Kenny could well find himself in a lonely place by then. The recent history of referendums tells us that a win requires a big campaign. How Mr Kenny can deliver such a campaign, with the bulk of his party at best apathetic and with many of his Labour allies hostile, is hard to see. A referendum win has always required opposition parties' support but both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein have already declared their opposition.
Reality tells us that the Seanad referendum, in late September or early October, will attract a very low turnout. The outcome looks set to turn upon a choice between total disillusionment with established politics, and suspicion about the Taoiseach's real motives in wanting rid of the Seanad.
That is not a very edifying choice. And the outcome could go either way.