Abortion Bill discipline casts Fine Gael as a potent political force
Having cracked the whip successfully, danger is Enda Kenny could lose the run of himself
Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny’s iron-fisted approach to party discipline on the abortion issue may not do much for his popularity, but it has enabled him to achieve something that all of his predecessors since 1992 have failed to do.
Successive taoisigh have either had their solutions to the problem created by the X case judgment rejected by the people in referendums, or have opted out of dealing with it through legislation for fear of the political consequences.
It is almost certainly true, as Senator Paul Bradford suggested in the Seanad during the week, that Fine Gael would not have gone down the legislative route were it not for the pressure from the Labour Party.
The other side of the coin is that the legislation would not have been nearly as restrictive if Labour had its own way. The Bill that ultimately emerged was part of the give and take between the parties that takes place in a coalition that is working.
Once the Government made the decision to legislate, Kenny was determined to avoid repeating the Fine Gael mistakes in dealing with the abortion issue in the 1980s, which did enormous damage to the party and to the government led by Garret FitzGerald.
A complex wrangle over the wording of the constitutional amendment in 1983 led to a relaxation of the whip and a three-way split in the party. It put all of the Fine Gael TDs of the day under enormous pressure from committed anti-abortion campaigners, and Kenny rightly calculated that any wavering this time would produce a similar result.
Bad 1980s experience
Over the past few months, the Taoiseach has regularly referred back to his dreadful experience in the 1980s during parliamentary party meetings. He told his TDs that it was something he would not allow happen again, 30 years on, and it accounted for his determination to impose the whip and insist on strict disciplinary action against anyone who broke it.
The 1980s experience was not only traumatic for Fine Gael as a party. The loss of authority that ensued helped to undermine the capacity of the FitzGerald government to get to grips with the economic crisis facing the country.
Now, as then, the economy is the dominating issue facing the Government, and Kenny was anxious to avoid both a deep internal split in Fine Gael and a row with his Coalition partner that could have undermined their capacity to deal with it.
The level of effort required to bring his party with him in the first instance and then get the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill through the Dáil was enormous. Just a few months ago, there were widespread predictions in the media that at least 20 members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party would not support the legislation in any circumstances.
In the end, five TDs, one a high-profile junior minister, and two Senators went overboard to join Roscommon TD Denis Naughten who voted against the Government two years ago over his local hospital. It was a painful process for all of them and for the party, but not nearly as divisive as it might have been.