Friday 15 November 2019

Analysis: Free vote on the abortion issue opens can of worms - and could even see Taoiseach dissenting

Former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
Former Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. Photo: Independent Newspapers Ireland/NLI Collection
John Downing

John Downing

When my late mother's friend described a seasonal gift as "unusual", you knew you were in tricky territory. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's "split decision" on Cabinet responsibility is so unusual that anything like it harks back more than 40 years.

Mr Varadkar tells us the Cabinet will come to a "collective decision" on holding a referendum on the abortion issue. But he has also said ministers will be free to "dissent" from that Government position when it comes before the Dáil, and then again before the electorate next year.

Put that into simpler language, and you find: ministers can vote one way in the Cabinet room, another way in the Dáil chamber, and then campaign, or not, as they wish in an abortion referendum we expect to have next summer.

To find anything comparable we have to go back more than 43 years, to July 16, 1974, to be precise, when Liam Cosgrave, of Fine Gael, was Taoiseach. Unsurprisingly, it concerned another part of that 'alternative Irish trinity' of contraception, divorce and abortion.

In 1974, contraception was as contentious a political issue as abortion is at present. The law had not changed since the 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act, section 17 of which banned the importation, sale, or advertising of contraceptives.

But on December 19, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled four to one in favour of a 27-year-old Dublin mother of four young children, May McGee, who had been warned her health and life were in danger if she had any more children. The judges ruled the contraception ban intruded on the McGee family's right to privacy, and exposed them to huge risk and distress.

Mr Cosgrave was leading a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, and some TDs in both parties were very unhappy at the idea of legislating for the Supreme Court ruling. Mr Cosgrave opted for a "free vote" on the legislation introduced by then-justice minister Pat Cooney.

Fianna Fáil, sensing an opportunity to embarrass the government, took a strong position against the draft law.

There was a clue in the title of the bill: "The Control of Importation, Sale and Manufacture of Contraceptives Bill."

Contraceptives would only be available through pharmacies, and only to married couples. It would be illegal for an unmarried person to buy a contraceptive.

It was too radical, and was defeated by 75 votes to 61.

The amazing thing was that Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave voted against his own bill. Mr Cosgrave was joined in the 'No' lobby by then-education minister Dick Burke, and five other Fine Gael TDs. One Labour TD, Dan Spring, of Tralee, father of future Tánaiste Dick Spring, did not travel to Dublin for the vote.

Many in Fine Gael and Labour had assumed Mr Cosgrave could not vote against his own bill, and were flabbergasted. But when push came to shove, Catholic Church teaching totally out-ranked a Supreme Court ruling. The late Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien, of Labour, later wrote of cabinet colleagues discussing their surprise and dismay at Leinster House. Their talk was overheard by an elderly cleaning lady, who could not resist questioning their surprise at Mr Cosgrave's behaviour. "Sure that man was an altar boy until he was 24," the lady said.

We don't know how long Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was an altar boy - if ever. But he has yet to clarify his position on the Eighth Amendment.

Irish Independent

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