Sunday 16 December 2018

Martin's abortion stance is either a masterstroke or a death warrant

The Fianna Fail chief's about-face speech will isolate his TDs but appeal to the liberals, writes Philip Ryan

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (Brian Lawless/PA)
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin's speech in the Dail, on the findings of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, could define his political career.

Martin rose to speak on the committee's report, which recommended the Government's introduction of unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, even though he had not been scheduled to do so. Members of the media were tipped off only an hour in advance.

Mystery surrounds the sudden urgency for Martin to speak on the subject.

The first sign of things to come was the group of TDs that surrounded him as he stood in the chamber, waiting for his microphone to be turned on. Billy Kelleher, Lisa Chambers, Fiona O'Loughlin and Timmy Dooley are all in favour of a more liberal abortion regime.

But it still did not prepare party members for Martin's speech.

His address was a fact-driven crescendo that climaxed with the sentence: "I support the idea of a time-based cut-off near the end of the first trimester."

There was an acceptance within Fianna Fail that Martin would support the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, as he previously supported the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, enacted following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.

But TDs were taken aback by his decision to support unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks. They felt isolated by their party leader.

They were especially shocked since the previous evening, Martin listened to the vast majority of the parliamentary party say how vehemently opposed they are to the suggested changes to the country's abortion laws.

Only a handful of his TDs and senators said they supported the Oireachtas committee's recommendations. Otherwise, one after another, senior figures in the party stood and said they could not support even the removal of the Eighth Amendment, let alone the introduction of abortion at up to 12 weeks.

Martin was warned legislation supporting such a scenario may not even pass the Dail, as the majority of his TDs would not vote for it. Laois TD Sean Fleming made this point to the leader and was supported by Wexford's James Browne. Others agreed the current make-up of the Dail meant it could not be presumed legislation on liberalising the country's abortion laws would pass through the upper and lower houses, even if a referendum passed.

The parliamentary party debate was respectful for the most part, but there was criticism of Billy Kelleher, the party's health spokesman, over his appearances in the national media on the issue.

TDs were critical because Kelleher was giving only his own opinion on abortion, rather than an over-arching party view.

On the same night, Martin attended a Fianna Fail national executive meeting where he was both praised and criticised for his stance. Interestingly, two of those who criticised him were members of Ogra Fianna Fail. One member of the youth wing even walked out of the meeting in protest.

Fianna Fail members have a free vote on abortion - which includes a vote on holding a referendum on the Eighth Amendment, and any future legislation that could be needed to enact the will of the people.

Of course, this conscience vote applies to Micheal Martin as much as it applies to any other member of his parliamentary party.

The only difference is the impact of Martin's decision on the public debate.

Overnight, the leader of a party accused of failing to campaign for marriage equality, was suddenly the darling of the liberal elite. Facebook and Twitter were alight with posts about the pro-abortion campaign's new figurehead.

He also - through no coincidence - heaped massive pressure on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to set out his position on the referendum. To date, Varadkar has only expressed concern over the 12-week period for abortion set out in the committee's report. His advisers say his decision not to give his view publicly is part of a strategy aimed at bringing on board people who may be struggling with their conscience. He is also reluctant to isolate those who supported his leadership campaign who hold pro-life views.

Martin, on the other hand, is clearly willing to take that chance. His decision to back the committee's report sent shockwaves through his party. The volte-face on his abortion stance comes three months after members overwhelmingly voted against repealing the Eighth Amendment at the party's ard fheis.

Fianna Fail constituency office staff and TDs around the country spent last Friday fielding calls from party members unimpressed by Micheal Martin's speech.

Many of those TDs were asked before the last election what their stance was on abortion and said they were against changes to the country's laws on the termination of pregnancy. Some will tell you their anti-abortion stance secured them votes and they are not willing to put those votes at risk over a referendum that could fail.

That is the salient point - the referendum may not pass, especially now people are essentially voting for a 12-week abortion scenario. If it doesn't pass, Martin will have picked the losing side in a referendum and alienated his party's base support.

His speech showed he put a lot of research into his position and believes it is the fairest and most humane way forward for the country's women. But most people voting in the referendum won't have the time to watch hours of Oireachtas debates or read a committee report. They will make their decision based on sound bites, television debates, newspaper columns and unregulated social media posts.

Ignoring the views of your party is a dangerous game for any political leader, but Martin has shown in the past he is a politician who listens to the people before making a decision - not always people who are members of his party.

Fianna Fail councillors and members, maybe even TDs, are likely to resign in protest against Martin's abortion stance, but the party will also become more appealing to the liberal classes of Dublin - who could swing the next election. If it pays off, it will be seen as a masterstroke by the Fianna Fail leader. If it fails, it will accelerate the need to replace him.

For the moment, Martin will wait to see which party members follow his lead, and consider whether they should be rewarded for doing so.

Sunday Independent

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