Wednesday 23 January 2019

Liberal agenda is about taking part, not winning

President Michael D Higgins, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin
President Michael D Higgins, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone and Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Colin Keegan/Collins Dublin

Fionnán Sheahan

'If liberals are so f***ing smart, how come they lose so Goddamn always." - Will McAvoy in 'The Newsroom'

Sure, it's a predictable quote.

A cheap dig.

Besides, they don't always lose. They just don't win as often as their superiority complex would convince them they should.

The most recent advance for the liberal cause in this country was the passing of the same-sex marriage referendum last year.

The referendum didn't pass because the country decided to take a radical turn. If anything the campaign succeeded because middle-of-the-road voters saw it wasn't actually going to be an enormous change. The compelling testimonies of gay people and their parents showed the move wasn't going to threaten to the fabric of society. It was just time to afford same-sex couples the same rights as everyone else.

Indeed, the Yes side was deliberately cautious about the image being put across to the voters as polling day approached.

Gay icon Panti Bliss was specifically kept away from debates as Yes Equality campaign leaders advised "less was best when it came to media opportunities".

The celebrations were barely over when the Labour Party began conflating same-sex marriage with abortion. As though all Yes voters were now signed up to the liberal agenda, Labour was seeking movement on the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities.

What a way to create a perception that one vote for a liberal issue is a gateway to another.

Fine Gael was in no mood to engage so the legalisation of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities hasn't advanced much further over the past 14 months.

The Government has committed to setting up a Citizens Assembly, made up of random members of the public, to debate the issue and come up with recommendations.

It's a cop-out to avoid making a decision and removes the responsibility from elected politicians. The alternative option from Fianna Fáil is a judge-led commission which would hear from various interest groups.

Again, it kicks the can down the road and removes the accountability from politicians.

The object of the exercise is to get an independent body to come up with proposals, which TDs can then hide behind.

The politicians have been behind the curve on the abortion issue for some time.

But a talking shop is what's on the table in a time of political instability.

Katherine Zappone has been advocating for 30 years for the Constitution to be changed to allow for abortion.

A feminist campaigner, with her wife, Ann Louise Gilligan, Zappone took a landmark case on recognition of same-sex marriage recognition, which was a vital step on the way to the marriage referendum.

Her liberal credentials are rock solid. Until, of course, she said this week she believed the people of Ireland are not ready for a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment.

"I think to call one now - I'm not convinced yet that enough people are with us, especially those who are still to be persuaded, part of middle Ireland, to say yes, they agree that there are various circumstances where women do, in very difficult circumstances, it's the best and the most correct and ethical action to choose abortion," she said.

Suddenly, she had sold out, was a disappointment and a coward.

The Twitter warriors were out in force to denounce the new TD in the usual juvenile fashion for having the temerity to express her political judgement.

Zappone lives in the real world. Now the Minister for Children, she has shown maturity in her approach to Government.

She put an abortion referendum down as a "red letter issue" for her support of the Government. She expects her side of the deal to be held up and takes her responsibilities seriously. She's inside the tent.

Unlike Shane Ross, she didn't showboat on the proposed legislation purporting to allow abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, which the Attorney General and Chief Medical Officer advised was flawed and wouldn't achieve what was desired.

And she didn't publicly declare that she didn't care if it was unconstitutional.

The abortion issue is another casualty of our fragile 'new politics'. Fine Gael can't afford to risk losing any TDs given its minority status.

In reality, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has gone as far as he's going to go. The passing of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, 2013, proved to be the most divisive issue in Fine Gael for a generation, costing the party five TDs and two Senators.

Want to know why Dr James Reilly is so unpopular with Fine Gael backbenchers? That would take a while to explain, but you'd do worse than starting with his role in the initiation of that legislation, which some TDs he bounced them into.

Kenny is a conservative politician, yet the first law permitting abortion and the same-sex marriage referendum was passed on his watch. He's not inclined to go down in the annals as the most liberal Taoiseach in history.

As long as Kenny is in situ, there won't be movement. Leo Varadkar and Frances Fitzgerald would certainly be regarded as being on the liberal side, Simon Coveney less so. But there's no guarantee either that a new Fine Gael leader will have the stability - either internally or externally - to back the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

And good luck if the liberals think they'll be any better off with Fianna Fáil in power. In a nothing to lose, free vote, on Independent TD Mick Wallace's fatal foetal abnormality bill, only five Fianna Fáil TDs voted for it: Lisa Chambers, Niall Collins, Timmy Dooley, Fiona O'Loughlin and Robert Troy.

Micheál Martin is perceived by those who know him to hold strong views on the matter and would be, at most, persuadable on permitting abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. But he has made it clear his party will not campaign for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

Like his Fine Gael counterpart, Martin will also be watching his flank.

When he allowed a free vote on the abortion legislation three years ago, he found himself in a minority.

Senator Ronan Mullen wryly noted it was good to see Fianna Fáil allowing its party leader a free vote.

If the Pro-Life movement wanted to set back their adversaries on the Pro-Choice side for a decade or more, they would push for a referendum as soon as possible on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Of course, this would leave the question hanging of what regime would replace it?


Where would the line now be drawn?

In a case of fatal foetal abnormality?

In a case of rape?

Abortion on demand?

To be determined by legislation from the Oireachtas?

In the absence of a definite answer to the question of what replaces the Eighth Amendment restrictions, a referendum will easily be defeated.

Hence Zappone's judgement call that there needs to be more preparation of the ground.

The timing isn't right yet.

However, she made the mistake of believing the cause of liberalism is better served by actually changing a policy, not just campaigning against it.

Leadership is often about knowing when not to make a decision, as much as making one.

Irish Independent

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