Kenny’s Eighth Amendment move is opportunistic and cunning

Analysis: Taoiseach took his party by surprise by proposing vote on the amendment

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny took his parliamentary party by surprise this week when he said Fine Gael might be willing to allow a free vote on repealing the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, on abortion.

There was no sign it was coming. Indeed, many Fine Gael TDs had heard Minister for Children James Reilly was admonished at a pre-Cabinet meeting for saying in an interview he wanted the amendment removed.

In Fine Gael there has always been a tussle between the Christian democrat wing and the more liberal social democrat wing, to which Reilly, Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald belong.

When the 31st Dáil began, the Christian democrats had the whip hand. Many of the younger intake were innately conservative: Simon Harris and Regina Doherty, for example, both opposed abortion.

Kenny himself was seen as being on this side.

The liberal side has somehow held sway during this term but not without ructions.

The party eventually acceded to Labour’s wishes to include legislation giving effect to two- decade old Supreme Court X case ruling.

Crucially, TDs such as Doherty and Harris changed their minds in the light of some powerful testimony heard during special hearings of the Oireachtas health committee.

There was a Rubicon to be crossed on the issue. Kenny imposed a three-line-whip, warding off any suggestion (including one from Eoghan Murphy) that there should be a free vote on a matter of conscience.

Cosgrave precedent

A 1974 precedent was cited. At that time Fine Gael taoiseach Liam Cosgrave allowed a free vote on his government’s proposal to (slightly) liberalise contraceptive laws.

It descended into farce as Cosgrave crossed the Dáil floor to vote against his government’s Bill, which was defeated.

By insisting on a three-line whip in spring 2013, Fine Gael lost five parliamentarians.

Why the change now? There’s a convoluted strategy behind it, partly well-meaning, partly ruthlessly electoral.

Kenny told TDs and Senators the constitutional convention model would be revived, as a citizens’ forum.

It would debate the issue and report to an Oireachtas committee.

It will probably follow the model of TD Jerry Buttimer’s health committee in 2013, which did a lot to sway opinion.

If it reports that referendum change is required, it’s at that stage TDs will have a free vote.

Why was it not okay in 2013 but okay in the next Dáil? Well, for one, repealing the eighth might be asking too much of too many Fine Gael TDs and Senators.

Secondly, Fine Gael strategists have made a subtle distinction between this process and a commitment in the programme for government in 2011 that had to be met.

Labour has made this a red- line issue for any future talks on government formation.

The view is that Labour and others could use it to convince enough voters this issue would be long- fingered if Fine Gael won an overall majority.

By making such a categorical statement at such an early stage, it is willing to engage – and ready to go farther than before – Fine Gael can parry that argument and turn a deal-breaker issue into one no longer central.

Reilly still got a dressing down. He has not backed down and has indicated he will say the same thing again if asked.

Fine Gael’s strategy is to grapple with it now so that they won’t backfire on it in January. Is it contradictory? Yes. Is it a little opportunistic? Yes. Is it cunning? Yes, yes, yes.

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