Friday 21 October 2016

John Downing: A bit of quick parking, big U-turn and loads of procedure

Published 27/11/2015 | 02:30

James Reilly
James Reilly

Do you know the feeling of relief at sighting the "Park Here" sign as you become increasingly flustered driving in a traffic-choked city?

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You do! Well, that knowledge will help you understand Enda Kenny's moves to ensure "abortion" does not figure among the key voter motivators come the new year.

All seasoned politicians know that there are few if any votes in this most divisive of issues, which has convulsed the nation over the past three decades on several occasions. All parties have their problems on the issue - but it sits right on a 50-year fault-line in Fine Gael which has periodically pitted the liberals against the conservatives.

The assumption that Fine Gael would all but totally ignore the issue in the election hustings was shattered by Children's Minister, Dr James Reilly, in last weekend's Sunday Independent. When the Taoiseach moved to censure Reilly, three other ministers - Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, and Leo Varadkar - seen also as liberals, backed calls for some kind of formula to "address" abortion in the forthcoming campaign.

Enda Kenny has long been suspected of having more sympathy with the Fine Gael "liberals" than the "conservatives," while never lining up publicly with either side.

Forty years in a largely rural western constituency, and the imperative of preserving a semblance of party unity on issues impinging on sexual morality, have made him hyper-cautious.

He does not want this issue kicking about in an election he wants to be all about the rising economic tide and the declining unemployment.

And, he is already working to ensure the issue of abortion is moved far away from himself and his office, always assuming that he will return to Government Buildings next spring, by talk of setting up a constitutional convention - after the General Election.

Intriguingly, he has already done a complete U-turn on the issue of party discipline by saying all TDs and senators will have a "free-vote" when the matter finally does up for consideration. This is a "black-is-white/day-is-night" reversal of his tough-guy stance in July 2013, with his insistence on the party whip on his Protection of Human Life in Pregnancy legislation.

That squaring-up session cost Fine Gael five TDs and two senators. It also helped the slow launch of Lucinda Creighton's Renua Ireland, perhaps complicating the formation of the next government.

And one of those "Fine Gael exiles," Senator Paul Bradford, yesterday had grounds for reflecting wistfully that this belated recognition of the role of conscience in politics by Mr Kenny, could have spared a lot of strife over two years ago.

The internal Fine Gael critics of the Taoiseach will see this volte face as a tacit admission that he "got it wrong" last time. Others will heave a great sigh of relief that there is one potential time bomb defused in very good time, hopefully taking down the tensions immediately.

The motivation for the process roadmap to handle this issue, which has so often convulsed the nation, is much plainer.

It assumes that he will again be the Taoiseach after the next election and further aims to build the maximum possible distance for himself from this most distressing subject.

Now there is a strong vibe coming from Mr Kenny and his strategists about the "a-word" and the election.

It is that they have tidied it up neatly and it is now time to get back to economics matters. We shall see.

Irish Independent

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