News Liz O’Donnell

Friday 29 August 2014

Liz O'Donnell: Boozy Dail antics have a whiff of late-night Budget debates of old

Published 16/07/2013 | 17:00

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BECAUSE of the heatwave, last week's events will forever be recalled through a brighter lens. For this writer, key images will flicker to the soundtrack of Daft Punk's summer hit 'Get Lucky'. As the nation stripped off in the sunshine and headed for the beaches, all night booze-fuelled Dail sittings ensured there was plenty of fodder for the political journalists and colour writers.

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The fourth and final-stage debate of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill will turn out to be a classic episode in a long-running series which began 30 years ago with the Pro Life Amendment to the Constitution.

Lucinda Creighton's wrestling with her conscience in advance of her predicted exit from Government was akin to the dance of the seven veils. In the end, she was isolated when four other waverers toed the party line.

Much has been made of Ms Creighton as a 'conviction' politician, surrendering her political career on a matter of conscience. And undoubtedly she is sincere.

But ironically, the essence of her position and that of the pro-life movement is to deny other women that very freedom to act according to their conscience in relation to crisis pregnancies.

Not for the first time, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has stood down rebellion for the greater good and the survival of his Government. Against the odds, only five FG deputies opposed the bill; it was an accomplished exercise in damage limitation and leadership on his part.

By immediately filling the hole in the ministerial ranks left by Lucinda, he drew a line under any more grandstanding and moved on. For the moment at least, her days of "pirouetting on the plinth" are over.

Much will depend on whether she toes the line on wider policy issues or uses her new-found freedom to foment dissent with other defectors. It could turn out that making her a junior minister in 2011 was just a temporary stay on her insubordination.

And now the drama moves to the sleepy hollow of the Seanad. Lurking here and waiting for their day in the sun are a number of ornery FG and FF senators.

Paul Bradford will lead the charge along with Fidelma Healy Eames, and there are even mutterings of the FG whip in the Seanad going offside.

As party leader, Enda Kenny must feel like he is herding cats these days. But he has seen off dissent before by a mixture of steel and cajoling that has become his trademark. In this he has surprised his detractors inside and outside the party

Resisting calls for a free vote on this bill was vital. All the indications are that such laxity would have been disastrous for party discipline, as evidenced by what happened in Fianna Fail.

Fourteen deputies went against Micheal Martin's stance when given the freedom to do so; a chastening experience for the Fianna Fail leader.

After the electoral decimation of 2011, the plan was to rebuild a party with a more progressive feel to it. But despite the best efforts of modernisers such as Timmy Dooley, Billy Kelleher and Senator Averil Power, that project has suffered a setback. The party faithful made no secret of their conservatism at the Ard Fheis.

So the planned brand makeover by Micheal Martin will not be plain sailing. Strategically and electorally, Fianna Fail may be better placed to stay conservative on social policy, playing to the rosary bead constituency now abandoned by Fine Gael.

Outside the gates of Leinster House, the two polarised camps traded insults, waving rosary beads and holy water around, with gardai keeping the warring factions apart. Deputies were verbally abused as they emerged, depending on their stance. Prayers and hymns were interspersed with vitriol.

Pro-choice supporters were not about to hide their light under a bushel. This was a rare victory, albeit a modest one, for women's rights. As the Taoiseach said, it was not "radical" but it was "important".

It was a sign that, at long last, the traditional tyranny of the Catholic Church on public policy makers is over.

Despite mobilising large numbers on to the streets in rallies and advocating opposition and even excommunication from the pulpit, the bill was passed by a large majority of the Dail.

Regrettably, the late-night televised proceedings were not elegant. There were scenes more reminiscent of budget nights of old, with red-faced, dishevelled deputies boozing late into the early hours.

One government deputy in confusion pressed the wrong button. Another lunged at a female colleague; an act of "horseplay" now immortalised as Lapgate.

All of which prompted renewed appeals to call time on the Dail bar.

As a former whip, I reckon it is probably safer to have an in-house facility rather than deputies wandering off to local pubs and missing votes.

Herding cats would be easier.

Irish Independent

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