Monday 10 December 2018

Differences of opinion are to be welcomed... and they don't have to lead to a political war

Allowing members of the same party to disagree on abortion is a sign of strength, not of weakness, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins

Eilis O'Hanlon

The internecine conflict in Fianna Fail over Micheal Martin's decision to back the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution is a glaring instance of why politicians are reluctant these days to stick their necks out on any issue.

There's always someone ready to lop off their heads for heresy when they do.

At least eight TDs even turned up last week for a meeting organised by Carlow-Kilkenny TD Bobby Aylward to express their disapproval at Martin's change of heart on abortion, and others reportedly said they would have liked to attend but felt there might be pressure not to do so. Note: they felt there might be pressure, not that there was any. That's an important distinction, because, however clumsily he may have handled his recent announcement, the FF leader has been adamant that he will respect every TDs stance in the referendum campaign, even when it's at polar opposites to his own.

Pro-life FFers have every right to express their dissatisfaction at how the debate on abortion is going, just as every single one of them is free to vote in favour of retaining the Eighth Amendment.

But on a scale of disloyalty, organising what was quickly elevated in media reports to a "splinter group" within FF feels far more damaging to party unity than anything Micheal Martin has said or done. Some reports have even suggested that disgruntled FF members are "reaching out" to Renua. The source for this is a Renua councillor, so make of that what you will, but it's indicative of a certain disquiet in corners of the Dail.

That some TDs felt "let down", as Galway West TD Eamon O Cuiv put it, by Martin's decision to make his comments publicly in the Dail without giving them a heads up is understandable.

Insofar as backbenchers feel they're not getting an equal opportunity to put across a pro-life message in what may be the last chance the country has to collectively speak out on abortion, and that party spokespersons "have the advantage because they're in the top echelons of the party", that's fair enough as well, though there's probably not much that can be done about it. 'Twas ever thus.

In explaining their disappointment in Micheal Martin, some members of the party have also made some undeniably valid points. Writing in the Irish Independent last week, Mary Boylan, a FF councillor from Leitrim, explained that Martin is "entitled to have a view on this important issue as much as any other citizen" but that "his position as leader of the opposition makes him more than just another commentator". Boylan said Martin's role was to hold the Government to account, and she was particularly dismayed that he praised the Oireachtas Eighth committee for hearing evidence from "a wide range of sources" when, in her view, it did anything but.

She's not wrong. There was a manifest imbalance in the opinions sought by the committee, though so many members' minds were made up before hearings began that a greater range of witnesses would probably have had little effect. The FF leader could have been louder in protesting at the absence of voices willing to make a case for alternatives to abortion, or against its negative consequences.

But if Micheal Martin is not the same as any other citizen, it's also the case that abortion is not like any other issue. It's being treated this time round by the main parties as a matter of conscience to avoid a recurrence of the 2013 situation, when Enda Kenny as Taoiseach forced out Lucinda Creighton and other TDs from Fine Gael for their refusal to support the post-Savita Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

That unpleasantness was entirely avoidable. Good people were lost for no good reason. Micheal Martin has been consequently keen to stress that no member of FF will be forced out of the party for their own stance on abortion. But if that protection extends to all members of the party, then it ought to imply that Martin has the same right. He made clear that he was speaking in a personal capacity.

When it comes to abortion, speaking for oneself is the only thing that can be done with honesty, since it's such a deeply personal decision for any woman to make that it's difficult to set dogmatic rules.

More damaging still is any tendency among otherwise like-minded political representatives to sow divisions on issues which should be above party politics. This propensity is encouraged by the media, which loves to leap on any slight slip of the tongue by a politician, and whip it up into a scandal. It almost always has a deleterious effect on political life. This was one of the most striking things to emerge from the three-day government shutdown in America, when Democrats voted to end funding for state agencies in protest at Donald Trump's immigration policies.

It doesn't particularly matter which side was right or wrong. What was interesting was the polarisation between the two sides. It might seem axiomatic that parties would take up oppositional stances, but some commentators pointed to research showing that the number of members of Congress always voting with the party line is at its highest level in a century.

Again, it's not especially important whether they're right or wrong to do so. The crucial warning is that the space for principled dissent from one's own party is increasingly shrinking. Modern politicians are more conformist than they've ever been.

The culture war not only breeds nastier politics, it also makes for less effective government, because individuals are afraid of expressing doubt. Nuance is lost. Add to that the toxic atmosphere surrounding political conversation on social media, and it's little wonder politicians are reluctant to take risks.

Not so long ago, FF would have been remarkably unified in opposition to any liberalisation of abortion law. Now that's changing, and it needn't be at the expense of unity. There are issues so fundamental to a party's identity that they cannot be compromised, but abortion should not be one of them. The left has long sought to weaponise social and lifestyle issues as a way of isolating and belittling conservative voices, and in recent years they've become depressingly effective at it.

Not only in Ireland. Daily Telegraph writer Tom Harris recently recalled that, at his first Labour Party meeting as a new member in 1985 in Scotland, he spoke out against a pro-choice motion on abortion. There was a vigorous debate, and the vote was carried unanimously, despite his opposition. The next vote was to fill a vacant space on the management committee. His name was put forward and he was elected.

That wouldn't happen these days. Harris's opposition to abortion would be enough to have him cast into the political outer darkness as a heretic.

Possibly he's viewing the past through slightly rose-tinted spectacles. The 1980s was a choleric decade politically. In general, though, he's on to something. Respect for the other side's point of view is increasingly rare. Members of mainstream parties who try to enforce conformity, and attack one another for breaking ranks, are doing the extremists' job for them.

Micheal Martin could have handled the matter more sensitively. It may be unwise for him to drift too far from a majority of ordinary members. At the same time, whilst parties are run by members, they should never be run for them. What matters is hearing the voice of all those who vote for the party.

In that, Micheal Martin could end up being proved right by addressing himself to the country at large rather than the party faithful. Allowing elected representatives to follow their consciences also chimes with the public mood, which doesn't feel particularly factional about abortion right now. That may yet change, but take cover if it does. It's unlikely to be edifying.

Sunday Independent

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