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Despite a free vote, no FF TDs and just one FG TD voted in favour of PBP's abortion bill

The spotlight will be on the soldiers of destiny as to whether they have learned lessons from the past.

DESPITE COALITION PARTIES having a free vote on People Before Profit’s abortion bill, no Fianna Fáil TD voted and just one Fine Gael TD voted in favour of the proposed legislation. 

The vote was passed by 67 to 64 votes, with 25 Fianna Fáil TDs and 27 Fine Gael TDs voting against the progression of the bill. 

One Fine Gael TD, Minister of State Neale Richmond, voted in favour of the bill, while eleven Green Party TDs voted to pass the bill to the next stage.

There were eight abstentions – Stephen Donnelly, John Lahart, Paul McAuliffe, Darragh O’Brien, Jim O’Callaghan, Christopher O’Sullivan, Emer Higgins and Eamon Ryan.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was absent from the vote last night. 

Coalition party members who voted against the opposition bill will argue that it was to allow the process of reviewing the independent report on abortion laws to take place before decisions are made on any legislative changes. 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said today that legislation to make changes to the provision of abortion services in Ireland may now happen more quickly than Government had planned for

He said the proposed legislation passed by Dáil last night may now have to be considered alongside the independent abortion law review at the Oireachtas Health Committee.

Varadkar has stated he is “reluctant” to make legislative changes following the independent review, something he has faced criticism for

But looking at the Fianna Fáil party in particular, with no Fianna Fáiler backing the bill last night, it begs the question if the party has learned lessons from the past and if such a move is to the detriment of the party and the message it wants to convey.

The People Before Profit bill seeks to abolish the mandatory three-day waiting period for a termination and also seeks to allow terminations on the ground of a fatal foetal abnormality that is likely to lead to death either before or within a year of birth.

The bill also seeks to allow for abortion where there is a risk to the life, or of serious harm to the health, of the pregnant woman, and to decriminalise the provision of abortion.

The vote last night is a headache for the Government parties, namely Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who have been accused by PBP TD Bríd Smith of attempting to kick the can down the road by proposing the consideration of her party’s bill be delayed by 12 months.

This will now not happen. 

Much of the political focus in the run up to the 2018 referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment was placed at the door of Fianna Fáil. 

Prior to the referendum, 21 Fianna Fáil TDs voted against the staging of an abortion referendum. This included current members, including Mary Butler, Pat Casey, Shane Cassells, Jack Chambers, Seán Haughey, Marc MacSharry, John McGuinness, Aindrias Moynihan, Eugene Murphy, Éamon Ó Cuív, Brendan Smith and Niamh Smyth. 

A senior party source told the Irish Independent at the time that it was ”ridiculous”, stating “this could will come back to haunt us down the line”.

Two months after the vote, a photograph came under the spotlight, which showed half of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party posing for a photograph to promote a ‘No’ vote in the referendum.

The picture showed 31 TDs and senators were promoting a ‘No’ vote. 

The parliamentary party itself was split on the issue, with the final result shining a spotlight on the gulf between the soldiers of destiny and wider public opinion.

By contrast, party leader Micheál Martin made a signficant speech in the months prior to the 2018 referendum arguing for that the Eighth Amendment needed to be removed. 

Overall the party, in comparison to others, judged the mood of the people utterly wrong, with the public voting overwhelmingly for the amendment to be removed from the Constitution and for abortion rights to be afforded to Irish women. 

Following the referendum result, there was much talk about “reflection” within the party, about how many in the party failed to read the pulse of the nation on the issue.

Warning not to isolate young voters 

There was also a look back at advice given to the Fianna Fáil party which was warned that taking a pro-life stance in the abortion referendum could put the party on the wrong side of history.

That warning was sounded by Tim Bale, professor of politics at the Queen Mary University of London, at the party’s Ard Fheis in the RDS, where the party passed a motion effectively calling for the Eighth Amendment to be retained. 

The professor told the party that their stance on the issue could isolate them from the young, urban voters they desperately need.

Replying to a question from at the party’s think-in in 2018 about whether the gathering would be used to reflect and ‘think back’ about the referendum, Micheál Martin said: 

We do of course take on board and reflect on the decision the people took – such as the emphatic decision on the Eighth Amendment. And of course, we reflect on that and the lessons to be learned from that.

Martin pointed out that he was one the first party leaders to take a lead in the campaign.

It is often argued that Martin’s shock speech in the Dáil prior to the referendum, where he went against his party’s mood on the Eighth Amendment, saved the party from looking totally out of touch with the people. 

Martin said he had arrived at the decision after a “long period of reflection” and for many different reasons. It was a big risk, but one that paid off. 

With all eyes now on who voted which way on the bill last night and with the proposed legislation and the independent review going to committee for scrutiny, the spotlight may well return to Fianna Fáil and where their principles lie on the issue. 

Six years ago, Fianna Fáil were told that their stance on the abortion issue could isolate them from the young voters that they desperately need. In 2023, that advice still rings true today.

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