Friday 19 January 2018

Labour will pursue repeal of the Eighth amendment

Unconstitutional laws will not solve abortion issue, writes Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin

Minister for Public expenditure Brendan Howlin
Minister for Public expenditure Brendan Howlin

Brendan Howlin

The tragedy of fatal foetal abnormalities was centre stage in the Dail last week.

The Labour Party was at the centre of the storm with one of our deputies, my colleague Anne Ferris, voting against the party whip.

The debate was followed by a lot of questionable claims by some commentators about how the vote was about the individual courage of deputies.

I think the case is as strong that the opposite is true.

As somebody around long enough to have voted against the 1983 Referendum, I feel particularly qualified to discuss the repeal of that constitutional amendment. The case for repealing the amendment has been clear since 1992.

At that point, it was evident to its proponents that it had clear unintended consequences. For the rest of us, it confirmed our view all along that the constitutional amendment had been a mistake.

Given this ongoing position, there was much criticism of the imposition of the whip by the Labour Party on this issue last week.

This, however was governed by two factors.

The first is that the bill was manifestly unconstitutional, a view confirmed by the Attorney General.

No amount of wishing it to be otherwise - or seeking to pass the bill regardless of that fact because its proposers wished it to be otherwise - changes that.

Passing legislation which you know to be legally infirm does nothing to advance the issue you wish to see addressed. Parliament should not be used in this fashion.

The second point is a more nuanced one. The Labour Party whip was also imposed because, ultimately, that was the arrangement we had entered into with Fine Gael that had ensured the passage of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act in 2013.

It is appropriate in that regard to consider what was achieved by this legislation.

The X case issue had since 1992 sat incapable of being solved because there was no parliamentary majority there to advance it.

In 2013, arising from the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, that changed.

Despite this not being a natural issue for their party, both Enda Kenny and James Reilly guided the X case legislation through the Dail. They did so in honour of a Programme for Government commitment.

That was the deal; they had honoured their side and Labour honoured ours.

I make this point because much 'political' commentary these days has veered into the space of apolitical commentary.

The bottom line when it comes to Deputy Clare Daly's bill is that it received only 20 votes in the House last week. Fianna Fail for the large part voted against despite the free vote, while Sinn Fein seemingly has no position on the issue.

Unlike the political vacuum of those party's political positions, those who criticised Labour last week should note Labour is the only party committed to campaigning at the next General Election for a mandate to repeal the Eighth Amendment. We will pursue that issue in negotiations for a Government programme.

By contrast, Deputy Daly will not serve in Government.

Instead, she will deploy this issue as a political weapon to beat up her opponents.

Now, some may call that a principled position, but it isn't a political position.

As a Labour Party deputy who opposed the introduction of this constitutional provision when it wasn't profitable to do so, I am determined to see it removed.

I think the Irish people are ready for this change and other obvious challenges.

But it will take all the skills of the civil service and the attorney general's office to do the necessary legal work to have a sound proposal to put to the people - and a government with a majority who supports the proposal in the House.

That government was not elected in 2011. But when it is, as I hope it will be soon, it will likely as not have the Labour Party in it driving the issue forward as we have carried the responsibility for delivering on the social agenda for the last 40 years.

Brendan Howlin is Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and is a Labour TD for Wexford

Sunday Independent

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