Opinion

Thursday 24 January 2019

Taoiseach channels his inner abortion struggle to get conservatives on board

Polls might show a two to one majority in favour of repeal, but calling a referendum on such an emotive subject remains a political minefield, writes Eoin O'Malley

Leo Varadkar suggested last Wednesday that the Cabinet might not be fully on board with the repeal the Eighth Amendment and allow for abortion unrestricted by circumstance up to 12 weeks.
Leo Varadkar suggested last Wednesday that the Cabinet might not be fully on board with the repeal the Eighth Amendment and allow for abortion unrestricted by circumstance up to 12 weeks.

The important votes in the abortion issue are lost votes. For those people who think about abortion a lot, it's a very important issue. They have strong views, and stronger expectations. Because they are convinced they are right, they expect everyone else to be on their side.

Almost no one actually moves to support a party on the issue; it motivates those voters to rule some parties out. It's for that reason that for decades politicians tried to avoid the issue, only to find some tragic case put it back on the agenda.

The X case, the C case, the D case, Miss D, Savita Halappanavar, all dragged the abortion question back on to the political agenda, against politicians' better instincts.

Leo Varadkar suggested last Wednesday that the Cabinet might not be fully on board with the Oireachtas Committee's recommendation to repeal the Eighth Amendment and allow for abortion unrestricted by circumstance up to 12 weeks. There was surprise at his intervention, and he was accused by Fianna Fail's Billy Kelleher of adding confusion to the issue. Repealers were appalled at what they saw as him signalling that he could row back on a commitment which the Government had made.

But Varadkar's intervention might be less surprising when we consider the politics motivating it. Varadkar is like most Irish people. He doesn't have strong views on abortion, but is wary of those who do. The Government will almost certainly agree to put a simple repeal amendment to the people, and will also prepare legislation to reflect what the Oireachtas Committee recommended.

It seems that Varadkar himself is on board with the recommendations. But he's also leading a party that is looking to increase its support in the country.

The choice he faces now is whether to facilitate the referendum, but distance himself from it, to not campaign. Or does he actively support the campaign, and try to lead it?

Despite polls showing a two-to-one majority in favour of repeal, victory in the referendum isn't certain. And in his own party, there is a significant number of members, a few TDs and senators, and some ministers, who will be opposed to repeal.

Varadkar doesn't want to give in to them, but neither can he afford to alienate them.

But if he is too cautious and doesn't campaign, he will lose support in Dublin and the cities and among younger voters. This group is essential to Fine Gael potentially being returned. If he is equivocal about the referendum, and it loses, he will take a good deal of the blame. And it would be right that he get some blame.

So it would seem to be a better option to be a cautious voice in favour of repeal.

Then he needs to ask how active should he be in that campaign? Caution might not seem a good way to start a campaign you want to win. There's an assumption, especially among the energetic repealers, that the majority in favour of repeal now is solid, and all we need to do is hold the referendum. But they don't realise that most people don't think about the issue much.

Most people know that the current regime is intolerable, but they are slightly queasy about abortion, more so when it is portrayed as 'abortion on demand'. The committee's recommendations were hardly radical, but might reflect what most people would agree to if they thought about the issue for a sustained period.

The problem for Varadkar, and the repeal side (and I count myself among them) is that referendums aren't great places for sensible debate or sustained thought. It will come down to a couple of stock phrases on either side. If he lets the true believers lead the repeal campaign, they'll choose the wrong grounds to campaign on.

The most active on the pro-repeal side are convinced this is a woman's rights issue, rather than a woman's health issue. The problem with the human rights approach is that it's easily countered with appeals to the rights of the unborn child. The 'Save the Eighth' side will bring up 'abortion on demand' at every turn.

If Varadkar is an inactive supporter, he loses control of the campaign, which becomes a vehicle for the human rights industry. This risks losing the referendum and Varadkar gets the blame anyway. Even if it wins, he gets no credit - though he might live with that.

That's where we get to understanding what happened last week. I can only speculate, but I think Varadkar wants to appear that he is still struggling with the issue. This will make people who are themselves struggling with the question more inclined to listen to him when he comes out and says that he thinks the only way we can deal with the issue and the tragic cases the amendment has caused is to repeal the amendment and use legislation.

He will put himself on the side of the majority, and could then help that majority solidify its opinion. Varadkar is doing what Kenny did in the gay marriage referendum. Kenny shifted position in the years before that referendum, and in doing so, he was a voice that conservatives on the issue could identify with, trust and ultimately follow. Varadkar's caution isn't adding confusion, it's doing the repeal side a favour.

Sunday Independent

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