Sunday 19 January 2020

Government struggles to 'politically park' abortion issue

Health Minister Simon Harris Picture: Frank McGrath
Health Minister Simon Harris Picture: Frank McGrath
John Downing

John Downing

Another Dáil week - another internal government row over abortion.

But this time there is much hope another outright split can be avoided. There are signs that some kind of device can be contrived to keep a semblance of unity between the Independent Alliance and Fine Gael.

The stakes are high here, as it goes beyond the abortion issue, to the stability of this minority hybrid Coalition, which has been in doubt since it took office on May 6.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance People Before Profit (AAA-PBP) will table a bill to repeal the 1983 Eighth Amendment which prohibits abortion except in circumstances where the mother's life is at risk. Last time this happened, in July, three members of the Independent Alliance - Shane Ross, Finian McGrath, and John Halligan - voted against their Government colleagues.

The incident was a blow to Taoiseach Enda Kenny and a huge annoyance to him and all in Fine Gael. The fear is that it sets a precedent for the handling of other government business which is governed by the principle of collective decision-making.

Mr Kenny has set up the Citizens' Assembly which had its first meeting 10 days ago. It will begin working sessions to consider the issue next month and report next summer. The Taoiseach's hope that this meant the abortion issue was safely "politically parked" has appeared far too optimistic as internal government tensions persist.

That is why the phone lines were burning yesterday with contacts between Shane Ross and his adviser Tony Williams on one side, with the Taoiseach's key adviser, Mark Kennelly, on the other. Sources close to the Independent Alliance were still insistent that they had always required "a free vote" on matters of conscience, and Fine Gael knew this all along.

But Health Minister Simon Harris said he believed the Government will be "unified" after its meeting this morning. "An awful lot has happened since the last time this issue was debated in the Dáil. The Citizens' Assembly was in the past a concept, and it is now up and running. There is a very clear timeline on when it will consider the issue of the Eighth Amendment," he said.

"I don't want to pre-empt the cabinet discussion but my expectation would be that Government would put forward a reasoned amendment outlining why we are not in a position to accept the bill," Mr Harris added.

The more immediate problem for Fine Gael is that this type of Dáil motion appears to pre-empt the work of the Citizens' Assembly. Even though it is unlikely to succeed, the prospect of some Government ministers supporting the AAA-PBP motion is very messy stuff.

Other members of the Opposition are keen to keep up the pressure on Government on repeal of the Eighth. Against that, some on the opposition benches are also pleased to see open government rows on the issue. Last week Labour leader Brendan Howlin, a veteran of three coalition governments, said he couldn't understand ministers voting against their own government.

The two other Independent ministers, Denis Naughten and Katherine Zappone, are on message with Fine Gael. Ms Zappone is a strident critic of the "Eighth" but prepared to bide her time.

If Fine Gael can get this right, the issue may well be "politically parked" with the Citizens' Assembly.

Irish Independent

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