independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Kenny has shown real guts and leadership on a difficult issue

Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD during a media briefing on the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill at Government Buildings

THANK you, Taoiseach, for walking the line. For showing yourself to be a democrat who accepts the will of the people and for reminding your backbenchers about their duty as legislators.

The tide turned in the abortion debate yesterday when Enda demonstrated backbone, leadership and an ability to resist pressure from all sides. Including his own.

A bill to put abortion on the statute books for the first time in Ireland's history was published – a groundbreaking development, however restrictive the access.

But not everyone in the Dail is a democrat, judging by the political peacocking since the abortion debate erupted once again six months ago.

TDs are clamouring for a free vote on the matter, while denying pregnant women the same liberty of conscience. Hypocrisy has long been the political class's drug of choice.

Twice, the people have rejected attempts to remove suicide as grounds for abortion and polls indicate that this position remains the majority viewpoint.

But a number of politicians continue to shirk their responsibility to pass the law, behaving as though they have veto powers over the will of their fellow citizens.

Four taoisigh before Enda flinched from the rocky terrain he is crossing currently. But he recognises his obligation to legislate for the X Case – despite mutiny in the ranks and a hostile incursion by a previous Taoiseach from his own party.

No doubt there has been intensive lobbying in an attempt to persuade him to dawdle, demur or defer. But he understands that duty postponed is duty neglected.

The bill has taken a long time to draft – 21 years is slow progress, by any standards. That omission can be laid at the feet of Brian Cowen, Bertie Ahern, John Bruton and Albert Reynolds, heads of the six preceding governments which dodged their obligations.

Bruton's intervention in the debate has been extraordinary. This week, he compounded his earlier failure in government by insisting that the 1992 Supreme Court ruling was "impractical and mistaken" and should not be included in forthcoming legislation.

Let's pause here to consider the implications of his words. Bruton is a member of the Council of State, a constitutional role requiring him to advise the President. Yet he sees no conflict in publicly questioning a Supreme Court decision – something that is already law, even without formal translation into statute.

If the anti-choice lobby believes the Supreme Court ruling to be wrong, it should challenge it. As of now, however, the decision stands and it cannot be ignored. Not even by a former Taoiseach convinced that he knows better than the Supreme Court. Fortunately, Enda has a firmer grasp of a politician's obligations to democracy than Bruton: he realises that the will of the people, as expressed in two referendums and interpreted by the Supreme Court, is paramount.

The bill is a small step towards protecting women's reproductive rights. Some will argue it is too small – for example, rape and incest victims are offered no particular rights to abortion, which is a glaring omission. However, they do have recourse if they are suicidal.

While the proposed legislation is far from ideal, it is progress. If small steps are what it takes to advance towards a society that respects that abortion is never desirable but is sometimes necessary, then so be it.

Even if the legislation only protects existing rights, rather than creating new ones, an entitlement to abortion will appear on Ireland's statute books for the first time.

This will happen within months, despite the pantomime posturing we can expect in the coming weeks: name-calling in which women seeking abortion are denounced as evil, political playacting with an eye to re-election and an attempted imposition of the minority's standards on the majority.

Presumably, some Fine Gael politicians will experience a crisis of conscience and vote against the Government. Others may do so because they are worried about safeguarding their seats. It will make no difference to the passage of the legislation, although it will nibble away at the Coalition's majority.

Make no mistake. Divisive though it is, this bill will go through the Oireachtas – even if Pope Francis arrives at Leinster House and asks for it to be thrown out. Labour's position has been consistent, while there are sufficient numbers of Sinn Fein and Opposition TDs willing to do their duty to legislate for X.

Conscientious objectors in Fine Gael, or any other party, should vacate their seats if they cannot proceed. Legislation, after the people have spoken, and the Supreme Court has ruled is an obligation and not a choice. Or, as the Taoiseach points out, personal qualms don't "absolve people from responsibility".

Two years into his term of office, Enda has ensured his legacy. Perhaps it's not the legacy that he would have chosen but it's a positive one, nevertheless.

Finally, something is happening about the State's 21-year disdain for women seeking abortion services – more will be done in future.

Access is tightly controlled. By no stretch of the imagination could this legislation be described as a liberal abortion regime.

Indeed, the European Court of Human Rights may take the view that hedging in the suicide option with that phalanx of medical gatekeepers is unduly prohibitive.

But doctors now have legal certainty where before there was ambiguity. That's a significant development, to be welcomed rather than feared.

Undoubtedly, this has been extremely difficult for Enda, both personally and professionally, and his perseverance in the face of opposition deserves to be acknowledged.

Far from being the "abortion Taoiseach" of the Youth Defence label, he is a leader contributing to the health and welfare of Irish women.

He felt the fear and did it anyway.

Irish Independent

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