Burton under fire for ruling out free vote on abortion
Tanaiste Joan Burton is under fire from within her own party for refusing a free vote tomorrow on Independent TD Clare Daly's latest abortion bill.
In her biggest challenge since becoming Labour leader last summer, Ms Burton has called a special private meeting for TDs to explain the reasons why the Government is opposing the bill, in a bid to quell the unrest.
Labour TDs, including Waterford's Ciara Conway, have called on their leader to allow a free vote as many of them support Ms Daly's bill which would grant abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.
However, the refusal to allow a free vote has angered many within the party who feel Labour is at risk of losing its authority on the abortion issue.
Wicklow TD Anne Ferris has signalled she may vote against the Government.
Because of advice from Attorney General Maire Whelan which states the bill is unconstitutional, both Fine Gael and Labour are opposed to supporting its introduction. However, some within Labour have said they might seek a second opinion given their unhappiness with the advice from Ms Whelan.
The Irish Independent has also learned that the special briefing for TDs on the legal advice is to be held tomorrow ahead of the crucial vote. The meeting was demanded by TDs who want a comprehensive briefing on constitutional reasons for voting against the controversial bill.
The meeting will be led by Ms Burton and Communications Minister Alex White, who is a barrister, and is a sign of the concern within Labour as to how to handle the issue.
"The Attorney will not appear at the meeting, but it is expected that a comprehensive briefing will be given to TDs," said Ms Burton's spokesman.
Last night, Ms Burton's spokesman ruled out any chance of a free vote, saying the whip system allowed the Government to pass the 2013 Protection of Life Bill into law.
"The whip here is our friend, we got the X case legislation because of it," he said. But Ms Burton has also come under pressure from Fine Gael not to grant a free vote, given it lost seven of its party members, including junior minister Lucinda Creighton, over the X case legislation in July 2013.
"We held our nerve on the Protection of Life Bill at a very high cost for us in Fine Gael. Labour's call for a free vote is a non-starter," said one Fine Gael figure.
Ms Burton and her advisers believe the briefing will be sufficient to quell any dissent within the party. Repealing the controversial 1983 constitutional amendment is to form part of Labour's manifesto for the next general election. Despite the briefing, it is not expected that the terms of the legal advice will be published, as requested by members of the opposition.
Labour figures have said it is unlikely the advice would be published despite Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney saying he would favour the Attorney General's advice being released.
Three years ago, 14 members of the Labour Party penned a letter to then Health Minister James Reilly calling for abortions to be granted in such circumstances, and the party has been engaged in intense discussions in recent days over its stance on Ms Daly's bill.