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John Downing: Time for Taoiseach to personally take charge of the abortion issue

THE last sliver of doubt has been banished. This Government must legislate for the X Case and end 20 years of ignoring the issue for long periods.

The report of Expert Group which is due to go to Cabinet tomorrow signals that the Government should legislate for a minimal scheme of pregnancy termination and allow the Health Minister to later issue detailed regulations on how it should operate.

Charting the next moves will be a very difficult task and it falls very specifically to Taoiseach Enda Kenny to guide the Oireachtas and then the nation in a reasoned and calm debate. The events of the past fortnight have shown us that all the political parties have internal difficulties about this most sensitive of topics.

These internal party divisions should be harnessed to help secure a reasoned and calm discussion. The intemperate language of those on the fringes of this discussion, which we have suffered in the past, must be banished from public discourse.

There will be calls for a 'free vote' in the Dail and Seanad allowing our TDs and senators to dispense with party strictures and decide according to their conscience. There are grounds for such an unusual approach given the years of national division and indecision.

But a free vote would be a politically dangerous option. It is not the way parliamentary business is done and it risks creating a precedent ahead of numerous tough upcoming decisions on the economy which will impact directly on all our lives.

The coalition parties must hammer out a consensus and their elected representatives must live with it – even if they have personal misgivings. It's called parliamentary politics and it's the way things work.

For the last 10 days Mr Kenny and Fine Gael have remained largely silent on the issue. It sits right on the fault line of the differences between Fine Gael and Labour. It is true that the Labour Party has long maintained that there must be legislation to give effect to the February 1992 Supreme Court ruling which found that an abortion must be provided in cases where the mother's life is at risk – including from a threat of suicide.

That prospect upsets many within Fine Gael who have deeply-held personal convictions on the issue. These include two of Mr Kenny's own constituency colleagues, John O'Mahony and Michelle Mulherin.

This is where Mr Kenny's political and personnel skills must be called into play. He has a big majority but he knows only too well from his 37 years at Leinster House how division can and have corroded and crippled Fine Gael in the past.

There has been far too much foot-dragging. The Expert Group, which was chaired by Mr Justice Sean Ryan of the High Court, was set up last January. It was supposed to present the Government with its report by the end of June 2012, but this was delayed to October and finally landed on Health Minister James Reilly's desk earlier this month. Mr Kenny's delaying tactics cannot continue. The Government must deliver on its promise of a comprehensive debate.

We may take some strength from the indication that this Expert Group report will not satisfy those who are trenchantly opposed to all forms of abortion and those who believe it should be readily available. The pro-life side will see acting on the recommendations as being the slippery slope to making abortion more readily available. Many on the pro-choice side will conclude that it is far too restrictive.

Already the Government has made a complete hash of dealing with the setting up of an investigation into the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar. We must see a much more deft handling of the bigger and related issue of dealing with the X Case.

And that is another reason why both Mr Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore must handle this issue personally. They must be able to bring their more wayward and entrenched members with them and they must reassure a very sceptical public that the matter is being dealt with honestly, sensitively and competently.

The nation has been called to vote three times on this issue and has made decisions on five separate propositions. But as a people we have all failed to deal satisfactorily with the matter.

It is too easy to blame politicians here. We elect them and they are of us. It is clear that a majority of the Irish nation dislike the topic. But we have ignored it for far too long.

Now we look to our leaders for leadership. It will be a big test of their mettle.

Irish Independent