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Despite Leo's intervention, no one in this government will go near the abortion issue again

Analysis: The coalition will not give in to growing calls for a referendum on the 8th Amendment. Here’s why.

STRIP AWAY THE remarks about the 8th Amendment being too restrictive from Leo Varadkar’s recent landmark speech on the abortion issue and the most crucial line is this:

But it is not my right to impose my own views on others, and the current Government has no electoral mandate to do so. This is not a decision that can be rushed.

A version of this line has been pushed from government circles ever since it attempted to grapple with the abortion issue last year by passing the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill.

The jury is very much out on the effectiveness of this law given that two high-profile and troubling cases have emerged this year. The first involved Miss Y, a woman who was raped and denied an abortion on the grounds of suicide. The second centred on today’s ruling in the High Court that a clinically dead pregnant woman’s life support could be switched off after some doctors expressed uncertainty over the legal position.

What’s emerging from these two cases is the uncertainty that remains for some medical practitioners despite Enda Kenny and government ministers repeatedly saying the bill passed last year was about “codifying” the law and providing “legal clarity” for doctors.

Growing calls

The clamour for a referendum on the 8th Amendment is growing now in the wake of this latest case. Joan Burton was explicit in her opposition to the constitutional clause in a recent interview and Labour will almost certainly include a commitment to repeal the 8th in its next manifesto.

jb 8th amendment

Of course Labour being re-elected to government is a big ‘if’ right now, so all eyes are really on Fine Gael, a party whose intentions are less certain. Varadkar may have expressed a pretty explicit view himself about the worthiness of the current constitutional position, but read his words carefully and he wasn’t exactly saying a referendum after the next election is a red line issue.

But Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who is heading up Fine Gael’s election strategy, perhaps went a bit further when she told the Irish Independent last week that she backed constitutional change.

However, all of this would appear to conflict with the view of party leader Enda Kenny. He was quick to point out that Varadkar was speaking in “a personal capacity” (the Taoiseach uses that phrase quite a bit these days, particularly when a Cabinet colleague says something he doesn’t agree with) which indicates that it won’t simply be a case of sticking a referendum commitment in the next Fine Gael manifesto.

The issue will have to be thrashed out among members, plenty of whom who are opposed to any notion that the 8th should be repealed.

Political trouble

In short, all of this is politically troubling for Fine Gael. Don’t forget this is a party already full of infighting as its poll numbers collapse and an election looms ever closer.

Sat in his office in Government Buildings over a year ago, government chief whip Paul Kehoe summed up the extent to which Fine Gael had struggled with the issue during the fraught abortion debate last year, saying:

“It was absolutely the most stressful time for me in the Dáil ever, either as an opposition whip or government whip.”

Whatever about Fine Gael’s position before the last election, the reality is that Labour did not go to the people in 2011 pushing for anything more than action on the X Case and there was certainly nothing in the programme for government beyond examining the outstanding issues that arose out of X.

Taoiseach says Varadkar was speaking ‘in a personal capacity’ 

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

As far as this coalition government is concerned, that has been done and its mandate goes no further. But while having a mandate is important, it is not absolutely binding. Did the last government have a mandate to negotiate with the Troika, for example?

Fine Gael backbencher Eoghan Murphy might have summed it up best during a recent Dáil debate when he argued that this government DOES have a mandate.

“We put people in positions of leadership to lead,” he insisted.

Labour’s way?

There is no doubt that Labour TDs want something done but while publicly they push the ‘no mandate’ line, privately some of them go missing for votes on the issue.

If Labour is so clear on this issue, why not push for a referendum in the last remaining months of this government? After all, the party is on course for electoral meltdown next time out. Why not go for broke on an issue that appeals to its core vote and more besides?

The more likely reality is that the government will leave this alone. As our recent oral history on the summer 2013 debates showed, there was palpable fear among the government deputies, or as independent John Halligan described it:

 I saw fear in TDs’ eyes. I saw TDs who didn’t want to take part in the debate, would not go on the radio, would not go on the television, for fear of intimidation.

Maybe that, above all else, is the overriding reason for this government going no further on abortion in its current lifetime. It will certainly be one of the reasons why the next administration, whoever it consists of, will approach the referendum question with some trepidation.

Read: Doctors told they can withdraw life support for clinically dead pregnant woman

Leo Varadkar: Our abortion laws will be different in 20 years’ time 

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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