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One year on: Advice given to FF on their abortion referendum position was ignored - but will they learn from it?

The professor who warned the party that its stance in the referendum could put it on the wrong side of history addressed think-in this week.

Image: Sam Boal

IT’S ONE YEAR since the Fianna Fáil party 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 referendum has been and gone, with the public voting overwhelmingly for the amendment to be removed from the Constitution and for abortion rights to be afforded to Irish women. 

However, Fianna Fáil was the only party whose members favoured a No vote, according to the RTÉ exit poll.

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.

Standing out on its own, the party, in comparison to others, judged the mood of the people utterly wrong.

This week the party gathered in Malahide for its annual think-in, the first one since the referendum result. 

Professor Bale, who had given the warning to the party last year, was back, this time to address the party on all matters to do with Brexit.

Reflection at the think-in?

So, a good time to pause, stop and reflect on the year gone by and where to next. 

Ahead of the think-in, one senior Fianna Fáil source said, Bale’s presence was sure to spark reflective discussions about how the party handled the abortion debate. 

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

FF 633_90553758 Fianna Fail party members (LtoR) Anne Rabbitte TD, Fiona O’Loughlin TD, Senator Lorraine Clifford- Lee, Senator Catherine Ardagh, Lisa Chambers TD and Fianna Fail Party Leader Michael Martin Source: Sam Boal

Speaking to TheJournal.ie this week, Professor Bale said in the end, party members decided for themselves what way to vote. But was it to the detriment of the party and the message it wants to convey as a party getting back on its feet in a modern Ireland? And was the party on the wrong side of history? 

“I don’t think it is the case of taking the wrong side in the end. People mainly decided on principle. Those people, who in the end, have a more progressive, more modern attitude went one way, and those that stuck firmly to the principles they’ve held for a long time went the other way. I don’t suppose anything I said made any difference either way,” said Professor Bale. 

‘Lessons to be learned’ 

Replying to a question from TheJournal.ie about whether this year’s think-in is a time to reflect and ‘think back’ about the referendum, party leader 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.

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

In a shock speech, Martin stood up in the Dáil, going against his party’s mood, and said the Eighth Amendment should be removed. 

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. 

The party leader is keenly aware that his party is made up of “varied views” and people with “different perspectives”, he said. 

ff 362_90553748 Source: Sam Boal

This week he said he felt there needed to be some balance around the debate, stating that his party was being made a stereotype, when there were also other parties, such as Sinn Féin, that struggled with how it would handle the debate. 

The long road back 

Pushing the party into the 21st century and building it back from election devastation  was never going to be easy – something Professor Bale acknowledged this week. 

“It was always going to be a long way back [for Fianna Fáil]. I think, being honest, they have been lucky with the leadership because I think Micheál Martin has been a really big campaigner, I think he held a party that could have fallen apart altogether and I think there have been moves on policy towards a more Seán Lemass style of Fianna Fáil politics rather than the kind of Bertie Ahern style politics, which I think is right for the time,” said Bale, who added: 

It takes a long time to change the salesforce of a party. There it was always going to be long term, ongoing project.

Where to next for Fianna Fáil?

“I think really in terms of their next election, I think it is very important to express to the electorate that they have been providing a very necessary measure of stability to this government and ought to be given some credit for that,” said Bale.

However, he said carving out “a degree of difference and independence” from the party you are supporting in government is a difficult challenge, particularly as time ebbs on. 

Time for the party to pull it down? Bale thinks not. 

He said the party is balancing it all out “reasonably well” in his view. 

“I don’t think that collapsing the government would be a good idea particularly at this very important time,” he concluded. 

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