Monday 19 August 2019

Laura Larkin: 'Emotions running high in termination debate - but the clock is ticking'

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Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

After 35 years and a landmark vote we may have thought that the abortion debate had moved on beyond the realms of posturing and personal attacks.

We were, it transpires, wrong. At least observers of the Dáil chamber this week will be forgiven for drawing that conclusion.

On Tuesday a row erupted between two former party colleagues: Louise O'Reilly of Sinn Féin and newly Independent TD Carol Nolan.

There was a heated debate over an amendment to the law proposed by Ms Nolan which would prevent publicly funded abortions in most circumstances. During her discussion Ms Nolan employed graphic and emotive language, prompting Richard Boyd Barrett to complain of "the verbal equivalent of the horrible posters we saw displayed outside the Dáil which were designed to induce trauma, fear and shock". The debate over the Eighth Amendment was never shy of such arguments between those on different sides.

The content of the amendment also drew ire from various quarters in the House, with several deputies pointing out that it would make abortion the preserve of the rich and create a two-tiered health system. But it was her former colleague who hit a nerve.

Ms O'Reilly said it was "a little bit sad that we have people coming in here to do the bidding of a certain well-known businessman".

She claimed her former colleague was using "shock tactics" and lacking in compassion. Her comments would not change minds but upset people she said, urging the Offaly TD to withdraw her remarks.

The Ceann Comhairle intervened, urging a respectful discourse, noting drily "the tone is well set" for the debate.

The following day Ms Nolan was moved to tears when she protested against what she termed an attempt to destroy her character a day earlier. Hers was a conscientious objection, and she was "forced" out of "that party" because of it, she told the Dáil. Her former party colleague Peadar Tóibín, who also left the party over abortion, was patting her back.

Theirs was not the only exchange that saw emotions run high; Kate O'Connell was out of her seat at one stage, hitting back at Mattie McGrath who was animatedly accusing her of "doing media" instead of listening to his contributions.

Dublin West TD Ruth Coppinger lost her patience as it became clear the debate would not end on time: "People will have abortions. They do not like it. Let them do that and stop this shaming and punishing of women for making that decision." She accused pro-life TDs of tabling "handmaid's amendments", and implored: "There are women waiting on this legislation to be passed."

There were several emotional pleas from those who oppose the legislation.

It all felt a bit like deja vu: the debate felt like a rerun of the recent health committee where the legislation was well aired. And the committee had felt like a rehash of the referendum. And the referendum saw decades of discussion distilled into a few short months that in many ways felt interminable. Late in the evening on Thursday there was some confusion over what amendments were being discussed.

"I'm repeating myself now," the Ceann Comhairle told the few deputies in the chamber at the time - he wasn't the only one. There were many contributions which sounded uncannily similar to those that went before. TDs on both sides of the issue took to their feet often - with many reading from prepared scripts.

But they stuck to their time for the most part - it was the breadth of legislative work before the Dáil that is ultimately causing the delay.

There are dozens of amendments to be discussed and the possibility of a similar body of work when the bill moves to the Seanad.

If only we'd had the foresight to spend 35 years talking about it.

Irish Independent

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