Wednesday 21 February 2018

Fine Gael rebuked pleas by Labour for a free vote

Tensions in Coalition as efforts to allow TDs vote with consciences on Daly's abortion bill rejected

Joan Burton. Photo: Arthur Carron
Joan Burton. Photo: Arthur Carron

Niall O'Connor and John Downing

FINE Gael shot down a direct appeal from senior Labour Party figures for TDs to be given a free vote on the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities, the Irish Independent can reveal.

Major tensions have surfaced between the Coalition partners after Fine Gael rebuked Labour efforts to allow their TDs to vote with their consciences on Clare Daly's abortion bill.

The bill, which proposed allowing terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, was comfortably defeated by 104-20 votes last night.

But in a blow to Tánaiste Joan Burton, Wicklow TD Anne Ferris voted against the Government and will now lose her parliamentary party membership.

Ms Ferris was one of several TDs who yesterday pleaded for a free vote on the bill, proposed by Ms Daly, a left-wing opponent of Labour. Ms Burton was forced last night to deny that the events of the week had "shaken" her leadership.

She and other party figures, including chairman Jack Wall, insisted yesterday that the party whip must apply to all TDs.

The Irish Independent has learned that a direct appeal from senior Labour personnel to permit each TD to make up their own mind on the issue was rejected by Fine Gael last Thursday.

Senior Fine Gael figures pointed to the loss of five of their own TDs during a vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy in July 2013.

During the negotiations last week, Fine Gael insisted that Labour must ensure that established voting discipline be maintained.

Labour chief whip Emmet Stagg confirmed the issue of allowing free vote was requested.

"Every possible option for the Government was discussed last Thursday, and that included a free vote," he said.

Ms Burton's difficulties were compounded last night after Labour backbencher Michael McNamara pledged to bring his own bill on the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities to the Dáil - keeping the divisive issue live among TDs and senators.

Meanwhile, Ms Burton expressed regret at Ms Ferris's decision and said it will be up to her to reapply to join the parliamentary party.

The Dublin West TD told reporters that issues such as fatal foetal abnormalities and abortion are "really deep issues" that Labour has consistently taken a strong stance on.

"We came into this Government with a manifesto commitment to deal with the issues the X case and the other cases. And we made it very clear as part of the negotiations for Government that we wanted that addressed," she said.

There will be a move at the parliamentary party national conference for the repealing of the Eighth Amendment to be adopted as policy.

The 1983 Constitutional amendment gave equal status to both the mother and the unborn and was the main legal barrier to the Government supporting Ms Daly's bill.

Meanwhile, Ms Burton must also be wary of the mood of other backbenchers - including Dublin Bay North TD Sean Kenny, Meath East TD Dominic Hannigan and Waterford deputy Ciara Conway - who also expressed deep unease about opposing Ms Daly's bill.

The Irish Independent has confirmed that Ms Conway told Oireachtas colleagues that she was preparing to break ranks, before eventually siding with the Government.

Addressing the media after her decision to vote in accordance with the bill, Ms Ferris said she is hopeful of returning to the party fold and running as a Labour candidate in the general election.

"I wanted to vote for the bill to go to the next stage, which is only committee stage so that the medical experts, the legal experts can come in and have a look at it and go through it line by line," she said.

Irish Independent

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