Saturday 21 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Expecting pro-life TDs to shut up and toe the party line misjudges voters'

Peadar Toibin's departure from Sinn Fein over his opposition to abortion illustrates all that's wrong with regimented modern party politics, says Eilis O'Hanlon

RESIGNATION: Peadar Toibin
RESIGNATION: Peadar Toibin

Eilis O'Hanlon

There were 58 pages in the Sinn Fein manifesto before the last election. Peadar Toibin, who was elected as the party's TD in Meath on that platform, presumably agreed with almost every line, including pledges to reopen negotiations with the EU on debt repayments; build more State-owned houses; hire 6,600 additional front-line healthcare workers; restrict the access of oversized foreign trawlers to Irish territorial waters; and confront cronyism and corruption.

Despite that, this week he resigned from SF after 21 years in the ranks after being suspended for disagreeing with the party's official policy on abortion.

That encapsulates what's wrong with modern political life. TDs are no longer allowed to agree in broad strokes with their party, while retaining the ability to conscientiously object to certain proposals. Instead they must sign up, hook, line and sinker, or else get out.

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It's actually worse than that. Toibin has - "with heavy heart", as he says - been forced out of SF for disagreeing with a policy that was not even in the party's manifesto on which he and his colleagues stood two years ago. All it said about abortion in the executive summary of that document was: "We will hold a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment."

There were twice as many words on the Wind Turbine Regulation Bill 2014. It certainly did not say anywhere in the full text of the manifesto that the party would row in behind the most radical interpretation of abortion, as endorsed by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment and subsequently transferred wholesale into the wording of the legislation.

The full clause in the 2016 manifesto simply said that SF would support a referendum "to provide for a woman to seek a termination of a pregnancy where her life is at risk or in grave danger, and in cases of rape or incest as well as in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities".

The actual referendum opened the door to abortion without restriction up to 12 weeks' gestation.

As for SF's much-trumpeted backing for a woman's right to choose, in the introduction to the manifesto, written by then party leader Gerry Adams, there was a list of rights that must be extended to all citizens, from the right to a house, healthcare, and education to, bizarrely, the "right to the re-unification of Ireland". The right to an abortion was nowhere mentioned, unless SF wishes to argue that it was covered under the general umbrella of healthcare. Either way, it didn't look like a hill on which TDs would be called to lay down their political lives.

Fast forward two years, and Peadar Toibin has gone, despite having secured an apparent agreement back in 2012 that his long held and widely known views about abortion would not be held against him. Instead, he now says, that agreement has been "binned unilaterally by the party" and he has "lost speaking rights, spokespersons' positions, portfolios and have been significantly censored in my engagement with the media".

Despite attempting to resolve this issue internally, Toibin says he got nowhere and was left with no other option than to walk away.

The political career of one TD is neither here nor there. SF will survive his loss, and he can still stand again at the next election as an independent, or under some other banner, and hope the people of Meath respect his stance. The damage this does to the tenor of public life is what matters.

Treating those with conscientious objections to certain practices, as if they were heretics, doesn't lead to grown-up political debate. It leads to parties packed with docile rubber stampers, who don't think for themselves, and encourages voters to look askance at any TD who is not 100pc on side with every jot and tittle of party policy as a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad when that may be far from the case. Toibin has certainly never made a nuisance of himself inside SF on other, arguably more important, issues. If only.

That doesn't mean TDs should get a free pass to defy party discipline. Had Toibin suddenly announced that he was a unionist, who wished Ireland to rejoin the United Kingdom and turf out President Higgins in favour of Queen Elizabeth II, then fair enough. That would go so far against the founding principles of SF as to make his continued membership of the party unconscionable. But abortion is hardly a defining issue for SF or indeed any other party.

He has not even sought to defy the Dail's right to legislate for abortion on the basis of the mandate received back in May, or to challenge SF's support for the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill. He did not throw his toys out of the pram when he and other pro-life deputies failed recently in a bid at the health committee to include an amendment to the bill that would have forbidden abortions on the grounds of the sex or race of the foetus.

He was merely asking for his dissent on this one issue from the party line to be respected. Any party which cannot make room for honourable disagreement is poorer for it, but SF has now lost two high-profile representatives since the summer, following the decision of Offaly TD Carol Nolan to resign the party whip in June. She said at the time: "I feel that it is unethical to force TDs who are strongly opposed to abortion to vote against their conscience." Hardly an unreasonable position.

Has nothing been learned from former Taoiseach Enda Kenny's decision to expel then minister for European affairs Lucinda Creighton and a handful of others from FG in 2013 over her opposition to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill? FG was sitting pretty at the time, enjoying a huge majority in the Dail in coalition with Labour; Kenny no doubt thought he could afford to lose a few apostates.

His successor Leo Varadkar cannot afford to be so blase, and has left open the door for any TDs with objections to abortion, in whose ranks he was once counted, to vote with their consciences. FF made the same pledge. Even now, though, problems remain.

At a parliamentary party meeting last month, it was reported that the FF leadership clashed with pro-life TDs who felt their views were being sidelined. No doubt Micheal Martin, cognisant that the people have spoken, wishes to move on quickly from the Eighth Amendment, rather than disappearing down a rabbit hole with no discernible electoral benefits; but there's still a cross section out there which feels desperately unrepresented and, more damagingly, scorned by the Irish establishment.

Only sycophantic lickspittles, of which there are more than enough around, ever agree with every word of party policy. Political leaders should have more faith in our ability to cope with nuance.

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