Wednesday 22 January 2020

Free ballot makes Fianna Fail leader appear weak

Fiach Kelly

NOT Micheal Martin's first choice, but the only realistic one available to him.

Allowing TDs and senators a free vote on abortion definitely makes Mr Martin look weak since he repeatedly said his preference was for a unified party position, but it avoids a damaging split in his ranks.

Given how divided Fianna Fail was on abortion, imposing a whip at the risk of losing half the now much-reduced parliamentary party would have been a dangerous gamble. Over its shoulder, only one of the 14 Sinn Fein TDs, Peadar Toibin, could lose the party whip and join the Independent benches over the abortion legislation.

Fianna Fail has just five more TDs, on 19 deputies, and would have stood to lose many of them if Mr Martin managed to impose a whip.

If he pushed, he probably would have won a parliamentary party vote committing Fianna Fail to supporting the Coalition's abortion legislation. However, the victory would have been narrow, and would have caused mass rebellion in the Dail, let alone the Seanad.

Such a scenario could have taken Fianna Fail dangerously near the levels of Sinn Fein.

It would not have completely damaged the hard slog of the past two years, but it would have looked awful.

Mr Martin probably calculated that allowing his pride and standing take a hit was a price that had to be paid. In reality, he would not have found himself in this situation if he had adopted a free vote as his position from the off.

He hadn't done his numbers before the first parliamentary party meeting to decide the Fianna Fail position on abortion, which took place earlier this month and was split almost down the middle.

That came just days after the party's ard fheis heard strong calls for Fianna Fail to take a pro-life stance.

The excuse of waiting for the Oireachtas hearings to conclude their work was just a ploy to kick the can down the road and see if the numbers would change. They didn't, and Mr Martin may dress this decision up as a new politics to allow TDs act according to their conscience, but that it ain't. It's numbers – old politics to the core.

One of the more interesting features of this Fianna Fail saga has been the role of prominent finance spokesman Michael McGrath, Mr Martin's constituency colleague.

He let it be known he had trouble with the legislation, and privately and publicly suggested a free vote.

Mr McGrath now seems to have had more of an influence on the final decision than his party leader. Which does his own long-term leadership ambitions no harm at all.

Irish Independent

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