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Ruth Coppinger: 'The TDs who decided women's destinies in 1983 abortion debate still hold office'

Ruth Coppinger said her party will take the pay increase due to TDs, but it will go towards campaigns supports.

Ruth Coppinger
Ruth Coppinger
Image: Leah Farrell

RUTH COPPINGER IS one of the 158 TDs in line for a pay increase as part of the Lansdowne Road Agreement but she claims she isn’t going to see a penny of it.

The Dublin West Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) TD is part of the left-wing side of theDáil which regularly calls out the government for not being in touch with the people.

Ministers and ministers of State have already decided to forgo the payment, as have Sinn Féin.

However, while Sinn Féin has flat-out refused to even take the pay rise (it says it is working with the appropriate departments on this), members of the AAA-PBP will benefit from it.

So why does Coppinger think it is right to take the payment?

If the money is paid, no we are not going to hand it back to Michael Noonan to give to dodgy developers and to bail out the banks. We will use it for our solidarity fund, like we’ve always done.

The solidarity fund is used by the party to support issues and campaigns it backs.

None of us will benefit by one penny. We live on the average industrial wage, in fact, I am paid less now as TD as I was as a teacher…
We obviously give the maximum amount we can to the party,  but we use the rest for supporting issues we’re involved in – striking workers, [the] repeal the Eighth campaign, community issues and that’s what we’ll do with this. It’s not going into our pockets.

TDs are paid an annual salary of €87,258, which was reduced from €92,372 after the economic crash.

Next year, TDs are due a €2,700 boost and a further restoration of the same amount the following year.

The measure is contained in the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (FEMPI) Act, which Coppinger points out her party voted against at the time.

“We voted against the pay increase when it was part of the FEMPI legislation and we made that point on the night and if it comes up again for another vote, we’ll vote against it,” she said.

1983 abortion debate

But it’s not pay issues that is taking up Coppinger’s time these days. She’s recently began reading back over Dáil transcripts from the 1983 abortion debates.

1983 ABORTION ISSUES REFERENDUMS Bertie Ahern, then Chief Whip of Fianna Fáil outside Leinster House, as former school teacher Margaret dances in honour of the Holy Trinity and Virgin Mary.

Some 33 years later, it is still the most divisive topic to be talked about in Leinster House.

Next week, Coppinger and her AAA-PBP colleague Bríd Smith are bringing forward a bill to repeal that 1983 Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

She has called on all parties, particularly members of the Independent Alliance and independents in government, to support the bill.

Reading the transcripts, Coppinger said she is struck by how many TDs from that period still hold seats today.

download (15) A sample of a postcard received by the Taoiseach. Source: (Image: Sinéad O’Carroll/TheJournal.ie)

“I have started to read the transcripts from the Dáil in 1983 and the opening page is very illustrative,” she says.
Who is there proposing the motion – Michael Noonan. I don’t make any apologies, he’s a dinosaur, he’s still here, 33 years later, trying to limit women’s control over their own destinies, again.

MICHAEL NOONANMichael Noonan in Aras an Uachtarain, after a reshuffle of the Fine Gael Labour Government in 1986.Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Interestingly it was three left-wing TDs (the left was quite small at the time), Tony Gregory, Proinsias De Rossa, Thomas McGillen, who stood up and tried to delay the bill which led to the constitutional ban on abortion, she said.

Some of the same people are still here that were here then, which is quite incredible when you think about it. The Chinese leaders must be looking for tips off them.

Government divide

Next week’s bill could cause a real problems for Fine Gael as its partners in government – the Independent Alliance – dig their heels in for a free vote.

Coppinger said there is a real momentum behind the Repeal the Eighth movement now, adding that politicians can no longer shy away from it.

This, for the first time ever, came up a lot at the doors. Obviously, some people said immediately, ‘I am not voting for you because of that’, but more people said fair play.

24/09/2016. 5th Annual March for Choice. Pictured 5th Annual March for Choice. Source: Sam Boal

The newly established Citizens’ Assembly is not something she is a fan of, stating that it is just another mechanism to the kick the can down the road.

The reality is, we all saw the march, 25,000 people, predominantly young people, but across all age groups. There has been a sea change in attitudes. The Church doesn’t have the sway it used to back in 1983.

If next week’s bill fails and the Citizens’ Assembly continues its work, eventually recommending a referendum on abortion but only for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest, would she support it?

The deputy wouldn’t commit to supporting a referendum under those terms, stating:

Obviously I support any liberalising and widening of the number of women that can access abortion, but if the Citizens’ Assembly, or the government put that as the option that would go in front of people, that would mean there would only be about 100 abortions in the country every year. Yet there are 4,000 women leaving the country every year – is that what people really want?

6/5/2015 Repeal The 8th Amendment Bills Paul Murphy TD and Ruth Coppinger TD

Passing a referendum

However, if or when there is a referendum, she is confident it would pass.

I think we’d win a referendum to repeal the Eighth.

In the latest national poll on the topic, the Irish Times found that just 19% of people wanted to see ‘British-style abortion’ in Ireland – that is abortion in all cases requested. However, another 55% wanted to see abortion allowed in limited circumstances, including where there was a fatal foetal diagnosis.

Objecting to some media coverage, she said the majority of people want a widening of abortion access.

We keep hearing in the media that people only want abortion in very limited circumstances. I dispute that. I think that most people, particular after the death of Savita Halappanavar, which was only four years ago, support the availability of abortion on a much wider basis than that and I think it is a real problem for the government if they dare come out with something as narrow as that [abortion only for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest].

Coppinger is adamant that any referendum held on the Eighth Amendment should be to get rid of the insertion into the Constitution completely.

I don’t think it should be linked to any amendment or replacement, because we shouldn’t be dealing with things like this is our Constitution.

23/9/2011 Dublin West Bye Elections Campaigns Ruth Coppinger, 2011 Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Criticism of the government 

Since she was first elected to the Dáil in 2014, the Dublin West TD has raised the Eighth Amendment as often as other contentious issues including abortion pills, the Apple tax, nationalising Dell, water charges and the property charge – to name but a few.

She has also been a prominent face of the anti-water charges movement.

Not a week went by during the last government that she didn’t have fiery exchanges with members of the government, at one point going so far as associating an unnamed member of government with the Islamic terror group.

She regularly came to blows with the then Tánaiste Joan Burton and Environment Minister Alan Kelly.

5/2/2016 General Election Campaigns Starts Labour's Alan Kelly and Joan Burton. Source: Eamonn Farrell

Why did she have so much beef with Labour? She says it’s because the party fundamentally did a u-turn on water charges.

“They were against water charges before the election and for them after,” she said.

Coppinger does not have much love for how former Minister Kelly dealt with Irish Water.

You couldn’t invent Alan Kelly for a soap opera script. He would be seen too much as a caricature, because there is a huge amount of arrogance and a huge amount of stubbornness and holding on to something [water charges] that is clearly, you know, falling apart.

She said Labour betrayed its voters and were in denial about doing so.

We had the largest protests in a generation… they think you can just resist that, but you can’t.

With water charges suspended for a period of nine months, the issue has largely fallen off the radar for the time being. (Although this week the government paid over €123 million to keep Irish Water afloat).

9/4/2015 Anti Water Charges Campaigns The We Won't Pay Campaign. L TO T. Pictured is Ruth Coppinger TD, Councillor Michael O'Brien and Anti-Austerity Alliance Paul Murphy TD outside Irish Water Head office. Source: Photocall Ireland

Coppinger said it is still the one big thing that resonates with people.

“If there is one issue that people stop you on the street about it’s water charges, even though sometimes you’d like more attention on other issues that we’re fighting on. It is just that one issue that people are like: ‘what’s going on with the water charges?’”

The Dublin West TD said she can’t see a way in which the government can reintroduce bills at this stage. Using the European Commission as a scaremonger won’t work, she said.

It is going to be extremely difficult for them to re-introduce payment of the water charges and re-introduce a bill system. The thing they wanted to use as the bogeyman was the EU Commission but they can’t use that bogeyman in the same way because of Apple, because they are taking on the bogeyman so then the bogeyman isn’t as scary. So that has really added to their problems. They are really in a bind now.

Conservatism 

The left-wing TD believes the Dáil is far more conservative than the general public, and doesn’t represent the full spectrum of people living in Ireland today.

She points to parties such as Fianna Fáil, stating that it was embarrassing they did not have any women TDs in the last Dáil.

The deputy said the chamber needs to be more reflective of the general population.

With that in mind, how does she feel about being the first woman to be nominated to An Taoiseach?

A lot of people were gobsmacked that there actually hasn’t been a woman nominated. If you think about it, over 90 years. It says a lot about how women have been sidelined.

27/2/2016. General Election Campaigns Results Ruth Coppinger and her daughter Sarah (10) after winning a seat in her constituency. Source: RollingNews.ie

She said the AAA-PBP wanted to put forward a nomination to make the point that there was no real alternative in the mix.

We felt it was important to put forward a woman to make the point that some of the bigger issues in society are to do with women, obviously repeal the Eighth.
It is not just a woman for the sake of a woman. I think you only have to look at what is going on in America. It would be very hard to say that I am supporting Hillary Clinton for the sake of women. She is a very corporate candidate that has been very involved in the war. I don’t think Joan Burton did much for women when she was cutting lone parents pay.

But Coppinger says the lack of female representation in the Dáil does have an impact.

“My daughter asked me before if women were only allowed to be deputy leaders. She’s 10. It says it all really,” remarked Coppinger.

Read:“The bills won’t be coming back…water charges are gone” – Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne>

Read: Brendan Howlin: ‘Clearly, the whole water charges issue was a mistake’>

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