Tuesday 18 December 2018

Kevin Doyle: Team building on the menu as FG cooks up calm debate

Citizens’ Assembly chair Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Citizens’ Assembly chair Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The email inviting Fine Gael TDs and senators to "a dinner with a twist" was an attempt by the party hierarchy to keep everyone united in the face of a debate that has the potential to divide Ireland.

The idea of holding a cookery night after a parliamentary party meeting centred on abortion raised some eyebrows - but isn't necessarily a bad thing.

We are facing into months of arguments over whether the Eighth Amendment should be repealed and, if so, what should replace it.

The mood at the Fine Gael meeting was generally respectful, which is interesting because there's a widespread expectation that things will get somewhat heated when the topic hits the floor of the Dáil tomorrow.

When Enda Kenny set up the Citizens' Assembly, few people believed we'd ever get to this point so quickly. The process was a fudge, created in order to be seen to do something while actually kicking the can down the road.

In October 2016, he addressed the inaugural meeting of the Assembly in Dublin Castle, telling the members they could have a profound effect on "how we live our individual lives and our national life in the Republic in the years to come".

The assumption was the Assembly would recommend limited constitutional change that could see terminations permitted in cases of rape, fatal foetal abnormalities and when a mother's life is at risk. Few predicted it would propose abortion on demand.

Its findings were sent on to an Oireachtas committee that initially struggled to find members from the main parties. It's understandable why people were shy about getting involved.

Those who did sign up faced intense lobbying from pro-life and pro-choice campaigners. Some of the online attacks can only be described as disgusting. But the members persevered.

It's now becoming clear that a key moment during the hearings was the appearance of the Citizens' Assembly chair Ms Justice Mary Laffoy.

She expressed concern about the lack of consideration given by the Assembly to the frequency of Irish women taking abortion pills as an alternative to travelling abroad.

While Ms Justice Laffoy strenuously defended the process and the democratic outcome, she said she was concerned the Assembly didn't cover "sufficiently" the use of abortion pills.

Most of the messaging coming from those who have 'taken a journey' on this issue now centres around tablets bought online.

Hildegarde Naughton told yesterday's Fine Gael meeting the argument around pills helped changed her view.

She explained that 1,800 women are taking pills in Ireland every year without medical supervision.

"You can get it through your letter box through An Post on a daily basis," she said afterwards.

Of course, others like Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick, who also sat on the Oireachtas committee, will not be convinced that the time of liberalisation is upon us. And that's fine too.

Fine Gael is split on the issue. Fianna Fáil is split. And despite a party dictate, privately it seems Sinn Féin also has divided views.

One Fine Gael minister said: "We went into the meeting expecting people to disagree. In some ways it suits Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil, to have a range of opinions because our voters have a range of opinions."

There's a significant amount of truth in that - but only if the calm atmosphere they boast about behind closed doors can prevail in public.

Irish Independent

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