Tuesday 20 August 2019

Revealed: James Reilly faces down Taoiseach three times over abortion

Row: James Reilly
Row: James Reilly

Niall O'Connor and Philip Ryan

Fine Gael deputy leader Dr James Reilly feared that he would be sacked after he dramatically faced down the Taoiseach three times over his call to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

During a stormy meeting of Fine Gael ministers, a defiant Dr Reilly refused to budge over his demand for an abortion referendum, telling Enda Kenny repeatedly: "I said it, I believe it and I'll say it again."

And on Friday, the Children's Minister took a swipe again at the Taoiseach as he told a group of young voters to "never stand back because others try to shut you down".

Dr Reilly's decision to intervene in the abortion debate, during an interview last week with this newspaper, sent shockwaves through Fine Gael circles and led to accusations that he had "directly undermined" the Taoiseach.

But Mr Kenny's attempts to "admonish" his deputy leader backfired spectacularly on Tuesday as Dr Reilly's call for the party to address the abortion issue was backed by two of the Taoiseach's own loyalists, Paschal Donohoe and Frances Fitzgerald.

During a heated meeting in the Sycamore Room of Government Buildings, Dr Reilly squared off with Mr Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan and insisted he would not apologise or row back on his remarks made to the Sunday Independent.

Enda Kenny and James Reilly
Enda Kenny and James Reilly

A well-placed Fine Gael source said Dr Reilly considered whether he would lose his position as deputy leader after directly challenging the authority of the Taoiseach.

But just 36 hours after the extraordinary stand-off, Mr Kenny stunned his parliamentary party by paving the way for the first abortion vote in 15 years and pledging that his TDs would have a free vote.

However, Mr Kenny's authority in Fine Gael has been damaged amid claims that his position has been "overturned" by the fast-evolving liberal wing of the party.

And a potentially serious fault line has also emerged as a cohort of conservative Fine Gael politicians insist that they will oppose efforts to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which gives equal status to the rights to life of the mother and the unborn.

This weekend, over a dozen FG ministers, TDs and senators - most of whom have rural constituencies -lashed out at Dr Reilly's decision to come out so forcefully in favour of a repeal of the Eighth.

"Reilly was simply looking to get his name in the newspapers," one minister told this newspaper. A second senior TD agreed, adding: "Everybody knew this would be dealt with. James's intervention was completely unnecessary."

But there is also a growing fear within the party that TDs will be forced to state their position on abortion in sensitive cases, such as fatal foetal abnormality and rape, as a result of Mr Kenny's decision to allow a free vote.

There is also the widely held view that members of the Renua party, such as Lucinda Creighton, who lost the Fine Gael whip after voting against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill would be in the Fine Gael fold today had Mr Kenny not insisted on applying the whip in 2013.

"I just cannot get over what Kenny is at by giving a free vote. It will create more problems than it is worth," said a senior party figure who is also a confidante of the Taoiseach.

Senior Fine Gael sources close to the Taoiseach insisted the party had always intended to deal with the abortion issue in the general election manifesto and that Dr Reilly's intervention was an attempt to rebuild his credibility following his disastrous tenure in the Department of Health.

In his interview with this newspaper last Sunday, Dr Reilly said he "cannot countenance, as a doctor or a human being" the scenario whereby women are forced to go through with their pregnancies in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

He continued: "But most repugnant of all to me is that they have to leave this country for a termination and then sneak back in like criminals to bring their babies' remains back. That's patently wrong."

On Monday, after the interview, Dr Reilly's special adviser was "admonished" at the weekly advisers' meeting.

Senior officials close to the Taoiseach began briefing against the party's deputy leader, claiming that Dr Reilly's intervention in the abortion debate was in response to the announcement that day by Health Minister Leo Varadkar that the Government's Universal Health Insurance (UHI) policy was to be dropped.

UHI was Dr Reilly's 'brain child' before he was sacked from the Department of Health by the Taoiseach.

However, Dr Reilly's interview had taken place over a week earlier and before the policy decision was revealed by Dr Varadkar. Publication of the interview was delayed because of the Paris atrocities.

After Tuesday's pre-Cabinet meeting, during which Dr Reilly stood up to the Taoiseach, Fine Gael officials were instructed to finalise the party's abortion position in terms of the manifesto. Sources say it was "near finalisation" as the party knew that it would become an election issue

On Wednesday night, Mr Kenny was prepared for the issue to be highlighted when it was raised by Meath East TD Regina Doherty.

He told TDs that the issue of the Eighth Amendment would be referred to a citizens' convention and that deputies would not be bound by any whip when voting on any subsequent legislation.

Dr Reilly himself spoke at the meeting, telling members that "as a politician, husband and father", he believed it was fundamentally wrong that women are forced to go through their pregnancies without a chance of survival.

The dramatic week took a further twist on Friday when Dr Reilly gave an emotive speech to young voters about "standing up" for what you believe.

The unscripted speech, which was delivered at a Dail na Nog event in Croke Park, was a response to his dressing down from Mr Kenny: "If you believe in something, you stand up to it. You hold the line. You don't back off.

"That is the power given to you by our democracy, by our Constitution. And even if they disagree with you and they are entitled to, you should hold what you hold. Hold it dear and stand up for it.

"So for that, I say to you, a big thank you. But don't let it stop there. Be determined to bring change that you believe in. Be determined to be held.

"And never shy away from a difficult stop or stand back because others try to shut you down."

Meanwhile, Leo Varadkar has this weekend come out in support of the Taoiseach. He said: "The Taoiseach has made Fine Gael's position clear.

"We are not committing to a referendum on abortion as repealing the Eighth Amendment on its own would remove all protections for the unborn and would empower the Dail to allow abortion on demand, even in the third trimester. I don't think most Irish people want that.

"Any future change can only be considered if a broad consensus is reached on what that change should be. We intend to establish an inclusive process to examine the range of issues and to establish if there is a broad consensus," he said.

Sunday Independent

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