Thursday 18 December 2014

FG will pay high price for Kenny's stand on abortion

Published 02/07/2013 | 17:00

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton

NOW is the summer of Fine Gael's discontent. It would be wrong to describe Lucinda Creighton's speech on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill yesterday as a bolt from the blue. But there's no underplaying the significance of her intervention.

The junior minister had never made any secret of her concerns about the bill. However, the belief – the hope – among Enda Kenny's inner cabal was that ultimately she would back the legislation.

This was always going to be a tricky one for Fine Gael. Some political fallout was inevitable. But the best guess of those around Kenny was any rebellion would be restricted to a small number of backbenchers. Not ideal, but given how emotive an issue abortion is, and the huge government majority, manageable.

No longer. Ms Creighton was careful to reserve her position yesterday, to allow for the possibility of amendments at committee stage. She did not say she would vote against it. But given the conviction of her arguments and the Government's lack of room for manoeuvre, it's difficult to see any other outcome.

Ms Creighton is looking for three amendments to the legislation. Firstly, she wants the suicide provision omitted completely. That is clearly not going to happen. Labour simply wouldn't wear it.

Secondly, she wants term limits for abortions introduced. That also seems highly unlikely, given that this legislation only allows for terminations when the life of the mother is at risk. Informed sources say it's not a case of Labour putting the foot down here. In fact, there is uneasiness in both parties about the absence of a time limit. But they say the Government's legal advice is that it's not possible to put a time limit on a citizen's constitutional rights.

Thirdly, Ms Creighton says she is "perplexed" that a right to representation for the unborn is not included in cases where a termination is being sought. Again, there would appear to be no wriggle room here for the Coalition. It certainly wouldn't be a runner for Labour. It sees any termination as being a medical decision. It will not countenance what it sees as the presence of an attorney general in the maternity ward.

Overall, it's difficult, if not impossible, to see any of Ms Creighton's key concerns being addressed as the bill passes through the Oireachtas. That suggests only one outcome.

Losing Lucinda Creighton from the Government would be bad for Fine Gael on a number of levels.

It goes without saying that losing a junior minister – particularly a high profile, well regarded one – is different to a backbencher losing the whip. There's also the possibility of Ms Creighton's stance emboldening other wavering TDs to oppose the legislation.

The impact on morale in the party shouldn't be underestimated either. It's clear from Regina Doherty's comments – both on radio and in the Dail – that the abortion debate has taken a considerable toll on personal relations within the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

There's also the potential impact on the electorate if Ms Creighton does ultimately oppose the legislation. Whether or not one agrees with her interpretation of the bill, there's no denying her conviction on the issue.

The public has been massively supportive in polls of legislating for the X Case and that's probably not going to change. But if the European Affairs Minister is seen to be willing to make the sacrifice of walking away from such a plum job on a matter of conscience and principle, it is likely to make some broadly pro-life voters take a closer look at the legislation.

Other senior Fine Gael figures were putting a more positive spin on matters last night. They said legislating for X was never going to be easy but believe doing so will enhance the Taoiseach's standing with the electorate for finally delivering clarity and legal certainty.

Perhaps. Certainly, the Taoiseach has been decisive. But it seems inevitable that it will cost Fine Gael six, and possibly up to 10, TDs – including, arguably, its highest profile junior minister. By any standards, that's a big political price to pay.

Shane Coleman is political editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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