Friday 17 January 2020

John Downing: Why Enda the quiet liberal is an inbetweener in divisive debate

WHERE does Taoiseach Enda Kenny personally stand on this Irish alternative trinity of issues – abortion, contraception and divorce – which have so divided Ireland for two generations?

The short answer is that he is much like the rest of middle Ireland – a believer in live-and-let-live and always hopeful that there won't be too much fuss about such matters. Through 37 years in Dail politics, Enda Kenny has always been mildly, generally liberal on these issues and he has always been equally keen not to advertise this too strongly, too often.

One Fine Gael contemporary of the Taoiseach summed up Mr Kenny's stance in the recurring 'unholy trinity of issues'.

"There were broadly three groups in Fine Gael when controversy broke out: the 'urban liberal wing' who favoured change; the 'traditional wing' who strongly opposed change; and then there were the 'inbetweeners'. These were generally from outside Dublin, many of them sympathetic to change, but very aware of the political problems associated with being seen as 'too radical' or 'too modern'.

"Enda Kenny was always an 'inbetweener'," the veteran Fine Gael person explained.

Just 17 months before he first became a TD, on July 16, 1974, his late father, Henry Kenny, duly trooped through the 'Yes' lobby of Dail Eireann to back a law making it legal for pharmacies to supply contraceptives to married couples only. Sensationally at the time the Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, voted 'No' to contraception along with Education Minister Dick Burke and five other Fine Gael TDs, including another Mayo deputy, Martin Finn.

The minimalist measure – forced by a Supreme Court ruling – was defeated by 75 votes to 61. Fianna Fail in Opposition did what now reads like a parody of an old-style Catholic pulpit denunciation with Des O'Malley – as yet a decade away from finding secular liberalism – speaking about a duty to "deter fornication and promiscuity".

In July 1974, Kerry North Labour TD Dan Spring did not surprise too many by not being in Dublin for the vote as it was known that he had serious reservations about it all. His son, Dick Spring, as Tanaiste would lead the decriminalisation of homosexuality and a successful referendum on divorce barely two decades later.

The July 1974 contraceptive vote – which explicitly made it illegal for an unmarried person to buy contraceptives – is all less than 40 years ago and up to this week it might seem like a different time. But then events in Galway prompted us to rethink how far we might have travelled in making decisions one way or another on such issues.

Under Charlie Haughey's 1978 contraceptive legislation it was still in theory necessary to have a marriage certificate and a doctor's prescription to get a packet of condoms.

Ireland finally made sense of confronting the issue of contraception with courageous legislation in 1985 by Labour Health Minister Barry Desmond.

In June 1986, the country voted by two-to-one against divorce. In November 1995 Irish voters endorsed a restrictive form of divorce by 0.6pc.

But 30 years on and five referendum votes later, we have still left the issue of abortion unresolved. It now falls to the 'mildly liberal inbetweener' – otherwise known as Taoiseach Enda Kenny to lead the way.

John Downing is author of 'Enda Kenny: The Unlikely Taoiseach', published earlier this month by Paperweight Publications

Irish Independent

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