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John Drennan: Cabinet is 'torn apart' in abortion law dispute

Fine Gael chairman Charles Flanagan has warned that the Government runs the risk of making the same mistake as Garret FitzGerald's administration in the Eighties, which became "bogged down in a liberal crusade during a time of high unemployment and economic difficulties".



Mr Flanagan warned that such a focus gave rise to division, strife and loss of focus within that Government, resulting in "ultimate defeat", and added "the parallels between last week and the Eighties, or the errors of the Greens in the last government, are not going un-noticed".

Any enthusiasm within the Cabinet for wide-scale liberalisation of the abortion laws is likely to be eroded by growing concerns within both parties over the issue.

Such is the depth of feeling on abortion, the Sunday Independent has learnt that the Government will face a large-scale, cross-party revolt of Fine Gael and Labour TDs and senators should they attempt to liberalise Ireland's abortion regime via the legislative route.

So far, attention has focused on dissent within Fine Gael, when, after a heated party meeting on the issue last week, it emerged that 15 TDs were opposed to any form of legislation.

Two Fine Gael TDs, Simon Harris from Wicklow and James Bannon from Longford-Westmeath, said they would vote against any such law in the Dail.

However, opposition to any form of legislation that liberalises abortion laws is far more widespread, and far more than two TDs will resign the Fine Gael whip if the Cabinet attempts to drive through legislation against their will.

A growing number of Labour TDs and senators are also signalling their discontent over this sensitive matter.

Such is the scale of concern within Fine Gael and Labour, the Government would struggle to secure majority support within both coalition parties for any such measure.

Health Minister James Reilly was forced into what was described as "an unprecedented U-turn" at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting last week.

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The reverse occurred when Dr Reilly was challenged by Fine Gael TD John Deasy over his plans in this area.

One gleeful source told the Sunday Independent that "Reilly was blustering about how the expert review group would report to Cabinet, which would then take a decision, and Deasy said 'no you won't, you'll refer it to us first before it goes to Cabinet'. Reilly foostered for a second and agreed. He was stunned".

Another source noted "Reilly didn't know what he was at. It was very robust, to the extent if there had been a full turn-out he would have been run out of the room".

In spite of Mr Kenny's own conservative views on the matter, the mini-revolt has sparked renewed concerns among party leadership about "plots".

One source told the Sunday Independent: "The Taoiseach's handlers are very paranoid. The usual suspects were on the phones, quelling dissent and warning people."

Dissent has also been growing in Labour over what was described as "the excessive influence of a pro-choice wing led by a Dublin elite".

This most recently surfaced when three Labour representatives, Ivana Bacik, Alex White and Ciara Conway, looked for signatures to a letter to Dr Reilly calling for action on legislating for abortion in certain scenarios.

A senior Labour figure last week noted that when it came to the seeking of signatures, "that letter did not travel beyond the Pale".

It is believed the concerns are centred on a claim by Ms Bacik and a certain wing of the party that Labour is "pro-choice".

This perception has created a desire within significant numbers of TDs and senators for "Fine Gael to recognise we share their apprehensions on this matter".

They added that "the attitudes of a Dublin liberal elite are not representative of the complex and diverse stance on this issue that is contained within the Labour Party".

The Sunday Independent was also told that should Mr Gilmore attempt to enforce a liberal stance, "it will take a fair man to bring us all to heel on a matter involving our personal consciences".

Chillingly, for Mr Gilmore, they added "like FG, quite a few of us are prepared to lose the whip on this one".

In Fine Gael, meanwhile, a different letter has been circulating in the wake of claims by a number of TDs that they received "letters of comfort" prior to the last general election from the current Environment Minister Phil Hogan.

In a letter seen by the Sunday Independent, the minister, writing as the party's Director of Elections, confirms that Fine Gael is opposed to the legalisation of abortion and opposed to research conducted on human embryos.


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