Backbenchers feel sidelined in debate on critical issue
The angry response of a conservative cohort within Fine Gael to the Cabinet’s announcement of a speedy timeline for implementing its decision on abortion is causing concern for the party leadership.
News that the preferred option among those explored in the expert group on abortion’s report would be identified as early as Christmas was greeted with fury by many of the party’s backbenchers.
With 76 TDs, Fine Gael can afford a few defections. In fact, more wily senior members had anticipated two or three deputies might be prepared to go overboard on this most controversial of issues. But if that number was to creep towards 10, with a contentious budget yet to be voted on, things could get a little less comfortable.
Minister for Health James Reilly yesterday dismissed his clumsy reference to seeking to implement “through legislation” the Government’s decision as a “slip of the tongue”, when speaking to reporters yesterday afternoon. Later, he insisted at a party meeting that he “mis-spoke”, but the explanation was widely disbelieved by the group of TDs and Senators who spoke out angrily at a party meeting last night, and by many of those who did not speak.
Those who kept their counsel, but are known to be concerned, are also a worry for the leadership.
Last night, many of them privately accused the Cabinet of creating an illusion of consultation, particularly by scheduling Oireachtas health committee hearings for January, by which time the Government will have already taken a decision.
They would have preferred to have the committee discuss the matter in the coming weeks in advance of the Government decision, which is believed to have been Reilly’s original intention.
He is also understood to have wanted officials to seek further legal advice in relation to the options put forward in the report in order to inform the Government decision, but it was confirmed yesterday the decision will be based on the content of the report.
Disgruntled Fine Gael backbenchers see yesterday’s announcement from Cabinet as a “victory” for the Labour Party, whose Ministers argued strongly that the Government must act “speedily”.
Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar identified a key difficulty for backbenchers. Speaking on Monday, he said: “If a difficulty does arise for Fine Gael backbenchers it’ll be in and around suicide ideation. That’s medically controversial as to whether a termination is an appropriate treatment for somebody who is expressing ideas of suicide.”
He stressed they would be bound by the party whip. One thoughtful Fine Gael member asked last night: “Are people just posturing, or are they prepared to vote against the Government on the suicide issue?” Soothing words will be required to avoid the latter.