Monday 20 January 2020

Liz O'Donnell: Hold your nerve, Enda, there may still be trouble ahead

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

So, at long last, the heads of the bill have emerged. The title is carefully crafted: The Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill 2013. When the final version was published last week, it was marked "draft 51".

There is general agreement that the Taoiseach has shown deft handling of a toxic political issue, which had the capacity to collapse the Government. He is not out of the woods yet.

The matter has been simmering dangerously since the formation of the Government and was always going to reveal irreconcilable differences between the coalition partners. Labour has been essentially pro-choice since 2001. Fine Gael has been firmly in the pro-life camp.

The tragic death of Savita Halappanavar and a series of cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights have forced the hand of the Irish State.

Across all parties, there had been a willingness, however hypocritical, to let sleeping dogs lie when it came to abortion legislation. And now that the shape of the legislation has been revealed after a tortuous gestation period, the Government is probably hoping things will settle somewhat. There is no chance of that happening.

My own view as a former whip is that it may be unwise to have further pre-legislative discussion by way of hearings in the committee. However, that is the delicate course that has been decided upon.

We have already had hearings on the report of the Expert Review Group in the lead-up to the drafting of the heads of the bill. Now the whole rigmarole is being repeated. Deputies and public alike feel like we have been through 10 rounds in the ring already.

What is so wrong with a second stage debate followed by a detailed forensic committee stage in the usual way?

Already there are calls for amendments and side letters of comfort from Fine Gael dissenters.

The irony is the main opposition to this legislation is coming from the government benches. Some are calling for a free vote on a matter of conscience. But a free vote exposes deputies to much more pressure. The whip actually gives them protection as they can honestly claim they are compelled to support the legislation, thus absolving them from personal responsibility.

Now that the Government has grasped the nettle, party leaders should hold their nerve. The whip is central to the proper functioning of a party and a Government. But discipline appears to be weak in Fine Gael these days. It probably goes back to the failed leadership heave. In order to move on and mend fences, troublemakers remain unchallenged.

Apparently during the lengthy Fine Gael meeting last week, deputies and senators were communicating reports of the proceedings to journalists. Somebody needs to impose some order internally. Otherwise, the next two months during the passage of the bill will be fraught with instability.

It must have dismayed the Taoiseach to see John Bruton publicly side with the bishops against Fine Gael in opposing the legislation. That sort of carry on emboldens others to break ranks. Hopefully the Cabinet can maintain a united front. They need to be more forthright and surefooted now in defending the legislation.

The voices of those opposing it appear louder and more passionate. This low-key approach from liberals may have been tactical so as not to frighten the horses in Fine Gael.

But we need to hear more women's voices in particular in this important debate. There are 25 female deputies in the House. So far, only a few have been vocal. This bill is uniquely about women's health in pregnancy and there never has been a more important time for women legislators to be heard in all their diversity so as to inform the policy.

The last time there was a bill before the Dail on this matter was when we had to legislate to allow women to receive information and travel out of the jurisdiction for abortions. I handled it for my party. I was a newly elected deputy. By the end of it, I was totally exhausted and drained.

I had received horrendous mail from opponents. I was abused in the street.

My heart goes out to the deputies and senators who will have to endure the intolerance and bile that will rain down on them over the next few months.

They will have already felt the white heat of it in the run-up to the publication of the heads of the bill. But now that the Government is determined to press on and pass the legislation by the summer recess, the activism will intensify.

To make matters worse, the bishops have weighed into the fray with astonishing vigour, making a confrontation between church and State inevitable. Leinster House is not a place for the faint-hearted.

Liz O'Donnell is a former Junior Minister for Foreign Affairs

Irish Independent

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