Thursday 23 January 2020

James Downey: Taoiseach shows mettle and no little courage in dramatic week

James Downey

ALL around the political world this week, the consensus was that Enda Kenny had handled the abortion imbroglio very well.

That is not the same as to say that the Government had come up with a satisfactory solution. Many difficult questions remain: term of pregnancy, rape and incest, unviability. These will continue to plague us for years to come.

But the Government has done what it said it would do. It has proposed an "extremely restrictive" abortion regime. It has found what looks like an acceptable answer to the problem posed by the X-Case judgment. It has shown courage in entering the thicket from which its predecessors flinched for two decades.

At best, it will not emerge from the thicket entirely unscathed. There will be defections. There will be Fine Gael deputies like Peter Mathews, willing to put their consciences first at whatever cost.

This is not wise, but it is admirable.

As to the waverers, the Taoiseach will have to carry on with the blend of skill and toughness which he has exhibited so far. In the outcome, his authority should be enhanced and the solidarity of his Coalition made more firm. These are very desirable developments.

By contrast, the Fianna Fail party has behaved in a manner which must cast doubt on the loudly vaunted claims of recovery and the leadership skills of Micheal Martin.

The party has split down the middle on the abortion issue. In politics, that is something that should be avoided at all costs. Divisions are inevitable. But politicians exist to resolve them.

It surprised me that Michael McGrath came up with the suggestion for a free Dail vote on the abortion legislation. At face value, a sensible proposal and worth looking at, especially in view of its source. Mr McGrath's head is generally considered to contain one of the biggest brains in the party, indeed in the Dail.

But a free vote? That would fly in the face of the party's history. It would expose Fianna Fail to ridicule. It would please neither side in the controversy.

How very different from another event this week, a seemingly dramatic intervention which looks as if it has pleased almost everybody.

Another man with a big brain is President Michael D Higgins. Famously, it is stuffed with information and ideas about philosophy and culture. But there is still room in it for down-to-earth politics.

For all his Celtic Twilight aura, the President is a thoroughgoing political animal. That means, among other things, that he knows what he can get away with.

Granted, his 'Financial Times' interview did breach the boundaries of his office. The Constitution is clear. The President acts "on the advice of the Government", in other words at the dictation of the Government. Its framers assumed, and had every right to assume, that President Douglas Hyde and his successors would do exactly what they were told.

But in the interview – granted, not by coincidence, to one of the most influential newspapers in the world – the President expressed strong views on highly important and controversial current issues.

He insisted that the moral question at the heart of the European crisis must be resolved. He specifically called for the creation of eurobonds and the separation of bank debt from sovereign debt.

Of course he was right on every point. But on what authority did he speak?

There must be some danger that 'Financial Times' readers might assume that he spoke with the approval, or even at the instigation, of the Government.

This is not the case. However, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore correctly pointed out that his remarks echoed government policy – and European policy as expressed by the European Commission.

What comes into view here is not so much a boundary as a tightrope. The President in continuing to walk it, as he clearly intends to do, will have to act with as much skill and toughness as Enda Kenny.

I hope he does continue. The standard of political discourse in Ireland is abysmal. Who better to improve it, to lead a thoughtful and profound debate, than our intellectual President?

The risks are numerous. I discount such fears that some future Jean-Marie Le Pen might occupy Aras an Uachtarain and use it as a platform for his outrageous opinions.

The real danger is that the President might appear to usurp the role of the Government.

But we do need a debate, about the present and the future. Have we learned any lessons from the economic crash? Have we a vision of a society to follow the recovery? Michael D Higgins, thinker and political animal, is uniquely fitted to lead it.

Irish Independent

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