Thursday 26 April 2018

I won't seek to influence other TDs, says Coveney

But Tanaiste's stance on abortion causes unrest in Fine Gael in the long lead up to referendum

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Cormac McQuinn and Kevin Doyle

Tanaiste Simon Coveney will not actively seek to win over undecided Fine Gael TDs to join his opposition to proposals to allow unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

Mr Coveney's position on abortion has caused considerable concern among government colleagues amid claims he is adding to confusion on the issue and that his approach is sowing "seeds of doubt" ahead of the referendum.

There are also fears his stance will influence the large chunk of TDs in Fine Gael who are undecided over the 12 weeks proposal.

The Tanaiste revealed earlier last week that he is in favour of repealing the controversial Eighth Amendment to allow Ireland's abortion laws to be changed, but is against unrestricted terminations.

The cross-party Oireachtas Committee that examined the Eighth Amendment decided that abortions should be allowed without restriction up to 12 weeks due to the difficulty of legislating for cases of rape and incest.

Mr Coveney told RTE Radio that he didn't accept that, saying: "Some of the experts said it would be difficult but not impossible."

The Tanaiste's remarks came days after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar embraced the findings of the committee and confirmed he would support repeal and the 12 weeks proposal. Fine Gael hierarchy are determined that there will be no public spats on the issue - but privately acknowledge Mr Coveney's position makes life difficult.

"The Tanaiste has briefed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar every step of the way. They have an understanding," said a source.

But complications may arise as allowing unrestricted terminations up to 12 weeks is to be included in legislation being prepared by Health Minister Simon Harris. That would go to a Dail vote in the event that the Eighth Amendment is repealed in the referendum and the people allow the Oireachtas to legislate for abortion.

There is uncertainty over whether or not such legislation would win enough support in the Dail. At present, there are 74 TDs against the 12 weeks proposal, 54 in favour and 30 undeclared or undecided. But a number of Fine Gael TDs on both sides of the debate were annoyed by Mr Coveney's radio interview.

"He was making points that just aren't backed up by the facts. I don't know what report he read a dozen times because it mustn't have been the one from the Oireachtas Committee," said one TD who favours reform.

Another source on Fine Gael's conservative wing claimed Mr Coveney was making anybody who would be anti-repeal feel pressurised into adjusting to his "middle ground".

Twenty Fine Gael TDs are still undecided or undeclared on the 12 weeks unrestricted abortion proposal. The party is allowing a free vote to its TDs on the issue. Some junior ministers - Pat Breen, Joe McHugh and Brendan Griffin - have declared positions similar to Mr Coveney's.

Carlow-Kilkenny's Pat Deering is the latest TD to express similar views. He believes there must be efforts to allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality, but said: "For me personally, unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks is a step too far." Parliamentary party chairman Martin Heydon confirmed he supports repeal but is "undecided" on the 12 weeks proposal.

Mr Coveney's spokesman said last night: "The Tanaiste is not actively trying to get anyone to agree with his view and come in line behind him."

He also said that Mr Coveney was "united within Cabinet in deciding on a repeal and replace referendum" and he would campaign for a yes vote to allow Ireland's abortion law to be changed.

Responding to criticisms of Mr Coveney's position, the spokesman said: "The Tanaiste agrees with all but one of the committee's recommendations. He respects that the Minister for Health must now prepare heads of legislation in line with the committee report and he will get his chance to input into the legislative process when it comes before the Oireachtas."

Sunday Independent

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