Abortion issue poses particular risks for FG
Q: Is abortion likely to split the Fine Gael parliamentary party next year?
The ever-contentious issue of abortion is expected to dominate political discourse from early next year and will cause particular problems for Fine Gael.
Senior party figures concede that losing a small number of backbenchers from the parliamentary party is a distinct possibility, with Longford-Westmeath’s James Bannon seen as the most likely defector. But whether Fine Gael splits on the issue depends on the actions of high-profile members such as Minister of State Lucinda Creighton, who will be particularly prominent during the EU presidency.
Minister for Health James Reilly caused consternation within Fine Gael last April when he told the Dáil that six successive governments had shied away from the issue, but the current Government would not be the seventh to do so. This week Dr Reilly said he hoped legislation would be passed before next summer.
Many within Fine Gael’s parliamentary party have long held strong anti-abortion views, although some say their opinions shifted following the death of Savita Halappanavar in University Hospital Galway.
Fine Gael TDs reacted cautiously to confirmation last Tuesday that the Government would proceed with “legislation plus regulations” for limited abortion, one of four options put forward by the expert group that reported to Government recently.
Although Taoiseach Enda Kenny has ruled out a free vote on the legislation, some TDs suggested they would wait to see the proposed wording before committing their votes.
They were unhappy about a series of statements from Labour TDs suggesting Labour policy had been “vindicated” by the Government decision. Some in Fine Gael viewed these statements as triumphalist in tone.
A number of Fine Gael deputies have recently publicly expressed reservations about legislation that would include the risk of suicide among the grounds for abortion. Mr Kenny made clear the legislation would “include the question of suicide arising from the X case”.
The most prominent among these objectors is Ms Creighton, and party colleagues will parse any comments she makes.
Significantly, Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar, who is a medical doctor, last month predicted “suicide ideation” would create a difficulty for party backbenchers.
“That’s medically controversial as to whether a termination is an appropriate treatment for somebody who is expressing ideas of suicide,” he said.
The risk for the party leadership is that Ms Creighton could become a focal point for a group disgruntled by the direction the Government decides to take.
Mr Kenny’s well-documented skills as a consensus-builder will be called upon to ensure the cohesion of the party will not be tested too severely in the coming months. He repeatedly stresses his personal conservatism in internal party matters.