Sunday 26 January 2020

Coalition can wriggle and squirm but this issue can't be avoided

Lise Hand

AS Eamon Gilmore was in full flow, the Fine Gael backbenchers arrayed a few rows behind him were sporting stonier faces than Mount Rushmore.

Oh dear. And there they were, thinking that next month's Budget would be the biggest potential for tears and tantrums within the Coalition.

That was to be the real test of the mettle of Fine Gael and Labour deputies – would they face together the inevitable voter ire following the unveiling of Michael Noonan's €3.5bn hair-shirt or would a frenzy of finger-pointing break out?

But that was before the bête noir of Irish politics rose from its crypt, where it had been lying relatively undisturbed as six successive governments tiptoed by. The minefield of abortion legislation has the ability to turn any political family from the peaceful Waltons into the feuding Ewings.

Since the news broke of the heartbreaking death of Savita Halappanavar, the abortion beast is awake now, and stalking the horrified land. And with every hour that passes, the pressure is piling ever higher on the Government to finally deal with the 1992 Supreme Court X Case ruling after the shameful and cowardly neglect of the past two decades.

Yesterday in leaders questions, both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein grilled the Tanaiste about when the expert group's report on abortion would be published, and when a Cabinet decision would be reached on how to implement the X Case ruling.

And time is of the essence. Ireland is in a very unwelcome spotlight, India is aghast at Savita's death, and the European Court of Human Rights is increasingly anxious for a response from the Government.

Moreover, an appalled electorate are demanding answers and action – neither side of the bitterly divided abortion debate is in any mood to tolerate any longer political obfuscation or foot-dragging on abortion.

Fianna Fail's Niall Collins pressed the Labour leader to reveal a timeline for action. "Will we have a debate in this House on the State's response to the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights prior to the Government reporting in December?" he asked.

Eamon was fuzzy on the details, but adamant that a full debate would take place. "The discussion must be a reasoned, reasonable, dignified one and it must be focused on what it is we need to do to bring legal clarity to sets of circumstances that have been outstanding for a long period," he said.

Nobody was satisfied by the phrase "legal clarity", the meaning of which is clear as mud. For it stepped around the key question of whether legislation will be required to implement the X Case ruling, a prospect which makes some members of Fine Gael very nervous indeed.

Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald tried to press the Tanaiste further.

"The blunt truth is that the limbo exists because this House has failed to legislate," she said. "The Tanaiste has not given the kind of clarity we need. Why has the Government not decided to publish the report? Why can he not say clearly that legislation will be brought forward to give effect to the Supreme Court judgment?" she asked.

Eamon was adamant in his reply that he would brook no delay. After all, he heads up a party which has long nailed its pro-choice colours to the political mast. "I am on public record for more than 25 years as to how this issue should be dealt with," he stressed.

Behind him, some Fine Gael TDs sat expressionless, their arms folded.

Action is coming, whether our politicians like it or not.

Irish Independent

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