Saturday 21 September 2019

Slow passage: All eyes on Seanad as delays risk timeline of abortion bill


‘We’ll get our way’: Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell (right), who with Frances Fitzerald (left) was part of the Together for Yes campaign, became frustrated at the Dáil abortion debate on Wednesday. Photo: Gerry Mooney
‘We’ll get our way’: Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell (right), who with Frances Fitzerald (left) was part of the Together for Yes campaign, became frustrated at the Dáil abortion debate on Wednesday. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

Senators are wont to complain that nobody pays attention to the upper house - they won't have that to say over the coming days, as their handling of the abortion legislation will come under intense scrutiny.

The painfully slow passage of the legislation through the Dáil - which saw extensive debate, some old-fashioned mudslinging, and no meaningful change to the bill in the end - put the timeline for services at risk.

That timeline now depends largely on those in the Seanad.

It is expected that substantial amendments will be tabled again, but there is muted hope in some quarters that the debate may be shorter this time around.

That idea was put to bed somewhat as senators took to their feet for the first of their eight-minute contributions.

It was immediately apparent that serious concerns about the legislation among people who represent both sides of the divisive issue are held among senators too. And they are myriad.

For some it was the issue of criminalisation, for others it is the contentious three-day wait period.

For Senator David Norris - who noted that he included abortion on his 1977 election literature - he sided with those who believe a doctor with a conscientious objection should not have to refer to a doctor who was willing to provide an abortion. Some may be surprised to know he had that view, he told the house, but it was a point of principle, he said, while also declaring the legislation as "rushed".

Independent Senator Lynn Ruane acknowledged the time pressure but argued that the legislation needed to be improved, telling Health Minister Simon Harris there is no Government monopoly on healthcare for women.

Similarly, Ivana Bacik - who broke down momentarily reflecting on her activism on the issue of abortion as a student, when floods of women in crisis reached out for information - believes too there could be some changes. But she urged colleagues to be cognisant of the fact that voters had cast their ballot with an outline of the law in mind.

Her tales of women calling a group of college students to get access to a number was a reminder of how long this has been a key issue in Ireland.

That was pre-internet, Ms Bacik reminded members, as she spoke of the "long road" to the point at which the country now finds itself.

It was fitting then that Google had chosen to reveal how much was spent on ads before it suspended advertising during the campaign.

Advertisers paid €78,314, which led to more than 15 million views across 817 ads during the lead-up to the referendum.

The role the internet and social media played has sparked some reflection on the role those new frontiers will play in the electoral process in future.

Ms Bacik was not the only one to note the milestones over the decades leading up to the vote, including the 2013 Protection of Life Bill. That debate turned sour in the Seanad with "disgusting" language used, she recalled, expressing hope that this bill would not face a similar fate.

Peppered in the opening statements were pleas for respectful discussion - that's all well and good in the first hours. It was the last days of Dáil debate, with late hours and frayed tempers, that saw tensions flare.

On several occasions, Leas Cheann Comhairle Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher warned deputies against "inviting interruptions".

Fine Gael TD Kate O'Connell appeared frustrated with the way in which things were panning out on Wednesday night, telling anti-abortion TDs that the Yes side had won in May. "Ye lost and it must be hurting but we'll get our way in the end," she warned, suggesting sitting after midnight.

In the end, however, it wasn't necessary. The final vote was held just before midnight on Wednesday, moving Ireland a step closer to having abortion. But the relief for Mr Harris was short-lived as he was before the Seanad just over 12 hours later to kick the process off once more.

There may be lessons to be drawn from the way the debate was handled in the lower house. TDs were quick to rise to harsh words from across the floor and the sniping was - at many stages - not the most parliamentary of exchanges to say the least.

There was also more than a few lengthy interventions by supporters of the bill (often preceded by claims that they did not wish to take up time), that didn't particularly cover any new ground.

It led some to question the wisdom of contributing at length when doing so was only adding to the delay.

All the while work is still under way to introduce services in the first week of January as planned - whether that was a political or woman-centred move is a moot point now.

The expectation has been raised among the public, who will be watching with interest over the coming days.

Irish Independent

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