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
The danger facing Kenny now is that, having cracked the whip successfully on this issue, he could lose the run of himself. The haste with which rebel Fine Gael Senators were thrown off committees yesterday provoked a rancorous and unnecessary row in the Seanad. Overindulgence in such tactics could store up serious trouble in the long term.
Still, the remarkable aspect of the whole episode is that Fine Gael, the party that spent most of its lifetime in Opposition, has, under Kenny’s leadership, turned into a ruthless political force that has wielded power effectively since taking office.
The very opposite has happened in Fianna Fáil, which was almost perpetually in power between 1932 and 2011. The party appeared to be gradually recovering ground after the trauma of the election meltdown two years ago but the abortion issue has raised fresh doubts about its capacity to recover.
The decision of Fianna Fáil to allow a free vote on the legislation, the first time it has ever done so in its history, was a sign that party leader Micheál Martin was unable to bring all his troops with him in support of the Bill.
Some made it clear they would in conscience have to defy a party whip and, given that they have only 19 Dáil deputies, that would have been catastrophic.
Martin and his health spokesman, Billy Kelleher, shared Kenny’s analysis of the restrictive nature of the Bill but they clearly calculated that by supporting the legislation they would put the party in tune with the mood of the electorate.
The real shock was not that some Fianna Fáil TDs voted against the Bill in opposition to their leader, but that almost three-quarters of them did so. As if that was not bad enough, Martin had to disown some of his own Senators for the graphic language they used about abortion during the debate in the Upper House. All that was achieved by the use of such offensive tactics was to undermine the argument for the retention of the Seanad.
FF’s ignored leader
Martin now faces a considerable task in trying to restore his authority. His problem is not so much with those who had genuine conscientious objections to the Bill but that so many others ignored his leadership and jumped on the bandwagon for their own political considerations.
Normally it is the Government parties who long for the Dáil summer recess but this time Fianna Fáil needs it every bit as much. The break won’t change the problems facing the party but the leader will be hoping the political agenda will have moved on by the time the House resumes on September 18th.