Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you
MICHEÁL MARTIN’S LATEST pronouncement that Fianna Fáil “are not going there” in relation to abortion will do little to enamour the party to voters who consider it a key issue at the next election.
In an interview with the Irish Independent’s Kevin Doyle today, Martin says that repeal of the 8th Amendment would pose “considerable difficulty” for his party in coalition negotiations.
It’s easy to see why he said this given the problems the issue has caused Fianna Fáil and Martin as leader over the last four years.
In February 2013, prior to the debate on the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill, Martin spent over six minutes trying to explain to us his party’s position on abortion without much success:
In the face of a rebellion from his parliamentary party, TDs and Senators were given a free vote on the legislation which provides for abortions in circumstances where there is a risk to the life of the mother, including suicide.
The majority of the parliamentary party opposed the bill.
The debates on it were notable for the contributions of Fianna Fáil senator Jim Walsh who was criticised by members of his own party, who were horrified by his graphic descriptions of abortions:
With regards to the 8th Amendment, which constitutionally enshrines the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn, Fianna Fáil’s position of opposition to its repeal was endorsed again at its annual Ard Fheis in April.
Although it’s worth noting that only around 40 of the 3,000 delegates at the conference were present for an early-morning debate before the non-binding motion was passed.
More recently, Fianna Fáil’s awkward positioning on the 8th was underlined by the response to a survey carried out by TheJournal.ie in June.
Ten parliamentary party members voiced their opposition to repeal. Fifteen, including Micheál Martin did not respond, while eight said the issue was too complex, with many TDs providing this generic reply:
I do not believe there is a simple yes or no to this sensitive and complex question. The people will want to know what is going to replace the 8th Amendment – whether this would be an added article to the constitution or whether it would be legislation alone. A straightforward deletion would mean the people would never be consulted again on this issue and it would be the prerogative of the legislature.
In short, Fianna Fáil is really struggling on this issue.
Aside from the outright opposition and fence-sitting, there’s an optics problem with the fact that all but one of its representatives in Leinster House are male.
This does not put the party in a great light when it comes to discussing women’s reproductive health.
BUT, there’s something quite important to note about Martin’s use of language when discussing the issue in recent times. He told the Irish Independent today that his party will not be “initiating” repeal of the 8th.
It’s not the first time he’s said this. On 22 September, Martin told reporters at Leinster House:
We’ve said collectively, as a political party, that we would not initiate moves to repeal the 8th.
The important word is “initiate”. Yes Fianna Fáil will not lead the charge on this issue but that is not saying outright that it will veto any efforts to make it part of a programme for government.
Martin talks of potential coalition partners like Labour, the Social Democrats and some independent TDs on the left. Almost all of them are pro-choice and would push for repeal.
Using the word “initiate” leaves the Fianna Fáil leader some wiggle room on the issue.
Much more so than his position on coalition with Fine Gael and Sinn Féin which would be untenable under his leadership given his comments repeatedly ruling it out in recent months.
Here’s what else Martin said on 22 September:
Obviously any moves to repeal the 8th would have to be very much equally about what would replace the 8th. Some people have a review just repeal and let things as they are.
Others however have an anticipation that if 8th Amendment was to be repealed something else would have to come in its place either via legislation or via another constitutional amendment.
This isn’t exactly the language of someone who is definitively ruling out moving on the issue. Martin is leaving the door ajar for a discussion on repeal and highlighting the importance of what replaces it.
So while on the face of it Fianna Fáil is saying little to curry favour with voters who consider liberalisation of Ireland’s abortion regime a big issue in the general election, that’s not to say that if in government next time it will not move on it if pushed by a coalition partner.
After all, Fine Gael was telling voters it would not legislate for X in the last general election. But Labour forced the party’s hand and the government ended up legislating for the 21-year-old Supreme Court case.
The same could happen with the 8th Amendment.