Wednesday 19 June 2019

Kenny in U-turn as Alliance gets free vote

Independent ministers set to back Wallace's abortion bill

Ministers John Halligan, Shane Ross and Finian McGrath Photo: Tony Gavin
Ministers John Halligan, Shane Ross and Finian McGrath Photo: Tony Gavin

Niall O'Connor and John Downing

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has capitulated to the demands of Independent ministers over Mick Wallace's abortion bill - despite the legislation being deemed unconstitutional by the Attorney General (AG).

Just days after insisting ministers must adhere to "collective Cabinet responsibility" Mr Kenny has performed an embarrassing U-turn and is now prepared to allow the Independent Alliance a free vote.

The move will see Cabinet members Shane Ross and Finian McGrath, as well as junior minister John Halligan, vote in favour of a bill that proposes to allow terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

This will put them in direct conflict with the AG, Máire Whelan, who has insisted the bill is at odds with the Constitution.

In contrast to the move by the Independent Alliance ministers, the rest of Cabinet will vote against the legislation when it comes before the Dáil on Thursday.

Politically, the scenario is deeply damaging for the partnership Government.

Read more: Serious tension on abortion risks Government stability

And it will be seen as undermining the position of the AG, who has once again found herself under public scrutiny.

During a dramatic day in political circles, Transport Minister and Independent Alliance member Shane Ross told RTÉ's 'Morning Ireland' yesterday that his group was demanding a free vote.

But just hours later, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar warned that any such move would set a "difficult precedent" for ministers in the future.

Fine Gael ministers such as Michael Noonan and Simon Coveney moved to play down the significance of the Cabinet rift, insisting it would not destabilise the Government.

Read more: Coveney: foetal abnormalities bill 'won't bring down the Government'

Shortly before 3pm, an official from the Taoiseach's office is understood to have phoned Mr Ross and informed him he and his colleagues will be allowed a free vote.

The issue, which has caused deep tensions between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, is on today's Cabinet agenda. It's expected the Cabinet will not take a position on the bill, despite the AG's advice, meaning so-called collective Cabinet responsibility cannot be technically breached.

One Independent Alliance source last night described the move by Mr Kenny as a "climbdown".

"We were expecting a big row over the issue at Cabinet, but it's now effectively been defused," the source said.

Mr Wallace's bill mirrors a bill previously tabled by Dublin Fingal TD Clare Daly, which was also deemed unconstitutional.

The bill proposes that women should be allowed to have a termination, where both a perinatologist and an obstetrician deem the pregnancy to be non-viable.

Read more: ‘Attorney general’s advice is simply an opinion’ – Shane Ross denies tension on abortion a threat to Government stability

Speaking at Dublin Castle yesterday, Mr Kenny insisted the party whip system only applied to members of political parties. He said there were five ministers in all who were not members of Fine Gael and the party whip as such did not apply to them.

The Fine Gael leader reiterated the plan for a Citizens' Forum to be set up later this year, which is expected to propose a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Mr Kenny stressed that this process would consider the eventuality which Mr Wallace was trying to cover.

Asked if it was appropriate for Independent ministers to disregard the AG's advice on the issue, Mr Kenny said: "I think it's appropriate the Cabinet has an opportunity to resume its discussions and we'll do that tomorrow."

Irish Independent

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