FINE Gael shot down a direct appeal from senior Labour Party figures for TDs to be given a free vote on the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities, the Herald can reveal.
Major tensions have surfaced between the Coalition partners after Fine Gael rebuked Labour efforts to allow their TDs to vote by their consciences on Independent TD Clare Daly’s abortion bill.
The bill, which proposed allowing terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, was defeated by 104-20 votes last night.
But in a blow to Tanaiste Joan Burton, Wicklow TD Anne Ferris voted against the Government and will now lose her parliamentary party membership.
Ms Ferris was one of several TDs who yesterday pleaded for a free vote on the bill and Ms Burton was forced last night to deny that the events of the week had “shaken” her leadership.
She and other party figures, including chairman Jack Wall, insisted yesterday that the party whip must apply to all TDs.
The Herald has learned that a direct appeal from senior Labour personnel to permit each TD to make up their own mind was rejected by Fine Gael.
Senior Fine Gael figures pointed to the loss of five of their own TDs in one fell swoop during a vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy in July 2013.
During the negotiations last week, Fine Gael insisted that Labour must ensure that
established voting discipline be maintained.
Labour chief whip Emmet Stagg confirmed to the Herald that the issue of allowing a free vote was requested.
“Every possible option for the Government was discussed last Thursday, and that included a free vote,” he said.
Ms Burton’s difficulties were compounded last night after Labour backbencher Michael McNamara pledged to bring his own bill on the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities to the Dail – keeping the divisive issue alive among TDs and senators.
Mr McNamara had been the focus of speculation in recent days that, like Anne Ferris, he might vote in favour of Ms Daly’s bill. But he did not and later explained that he believed it was in fact unconstitutional.
But the Labour TD, who is also a barrister, said he still felt very strongly on the issue and would now be proposing his own bill.
Meanwhile, Ms Burton last night expressed regret at Ms Ferris’ decision and said it will be up to her to reapply to join the parliamentary party.
The Dublin West TD told reporters that issues such as fatal foetal abnormalities and abortion are “really deep issues” upon which Labour has consistently taken a strong stance.
“We came into this government with a manifesto commitment to deal with the issues surrounding – over a 20 years period – in the X Case and the other cases. And we made it very clear as part of the negotiations for government that we wanted that addressed,” she said.
There will be a move at the parliamentary party national conference for the repealing of the Eighth Amendment to be adopted as policy.
Meanwhile, Ms Burton must also be wary of the mood of other backbenchers – including Dublin Bay North TD Sean Kenny, Meath East TD Dominic Hannigan and Waterford deputy Ciara Conway – who also expressed deep unease about opposing Ms Daly’s bill.
The Herald has confirmed that Ms Conway told Oireachtas colleagues that she was preparing to break ranks at around lunchtime yesterday.
But after attending the parliamentary party meeting, described by sources as “intense”, Ms Conway toed the line.
Addressing the media after her decision to vote in accordance with the bill, Ms Ferris said she is hopeful of returning to the party fold and running in the general election.
“I wanted to vote for the bill to go to the next stage, which is only committee stage so that the medical experts, the legal experts can come in and have a look at it,” she said.