Labour TD 'mistakenly' votes against Government on abortion
Clare TD Michael McNamara will not lose party whip
Fine Gael TD Lucinda Creighton at Leinster House in Dublin as the Dail debates the abortion Bill. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
An anti-abortion protester prays outside the Dáil as the debate continues over the abortion Bill. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Minister for Health James Reilly speaks during the debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill
Labour Party TD for Clare, Michael McNamara, voted against the Government on an amendment to the abortion Bill. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
A Labour Party backbencher has shocked his colleagues by voting against the Government and with independents who called for provision to be made in the abortion legislation to allow terminations in the case of fatal foetal abnormality.
Clare TD Michael McNamara took his party and coalition colleagues by surprise when he joined 18 other TDs who voted for the inclusion of fatal foetal anomalies in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill along with provision for inevitable miscarriages.
The Government won the vote by 124 to 19.
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The barrister had previously expressed his concern about the issue.
However, Labour Whip Emmet Stagg has insisted Mr McNamara’s vote was a “genuine mistake”. While it cannot be changed on the Dáil record, Labour is accepting it was an error and the Clare TD will not lose the whip.
During the second stage debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, Mr McNamara suggested it was hypocritical of the Government not to make the case for provision for fatal foetal abnormalities when it had argued in the European Court of Human Rights that in the case taken by Ms D on this issue, she had not exhausted all the remedies in the domestic courts and could have got relief from the Irish courts had she done so.
Mr McNamara said the State was now saying it could not legislate for this, when he said a legal argument to be made for it.
In dramatic scenes just before the debate on the Bill was adjourned at 5am, Mr McNamara voted against the Government on an amendment tabled by the technical group which called for abortions to be allowed in cases where there were fatal foetal abnormalities or inevitable miscarriages.
Mr McNamara’s wholly unexpected defiance of a three-line party whip evoked a shocked reaction from his colleagues. The Kerry TD Arthur Spring appealed to him to change his vote before the period for voting came to an end. Immediately afterwards a group of Labour deputies gathered around him trying to convince him to change his mind.
Party whip Emmet Stagg asked him if had he made a mistake and one of his colleagues repeatedly said: “I appeal to you Michael” in an attempt to make him reconsider his vote. His decision to defy the whip, if maintained, would normally mean automatic expulsion from the parliamentary party.
As he left the chamber, he was followed by a number of colleagues who huddled around him outside and made urgent appeals to him, before he was quickly ushered down a corridor. Mr McNamara’s vote was made electronically but no manual vote was called, where Deputies have to physically pass through the lobby to record their vote.
However, the party maintained a little later that Mr McNamara would not lost the whip as he had made a “genuine mistake” and had pressed the wrong button. Mr Stagg said Mr McNamara had assured him in conversation that it was a genuine mistake. “It’s not possible to change the record of the house because he pressed the wrong button but that’s the way it is. He will be voting with the Government on all other stages of the Bill. In that situation there will be no expulsion,” Mr Stagg said.
Tánaiste and party leader Eamon Gilmore was not in the Dáil for the vote as he is abroad on Government business.
In those circumstances, it is unclear why Mr McNamara did not reverse his vote in the chamber when Mr Spring appealed to him. The Clare TD left Leinster House without making any comment.
Several of his colleagues, including Minister of State Kathleen Lynch, had argued in the course of the debate that there may be a case for extending future abortion laws to provide for fatal foetal abnormalities. However, they had accepted that such a development could not happen in the context of this legislation.
The Labour Party had, until Mr McNamara’s vote, shown a strong party discipline and had consciously maintained a slightly background stance, because of the sensitivities of Fine Gael’s position.
The defection of Mr McNamara, even if Labour manages to repair its hand and reverse it, has damaged that show of unity and also dampened what was considered a successful effort by the Fine Gael leadership to contain its defections to a maximum of five TDs.
All Fianna Fail TDs voted with the Government and against the opposition on the issue.
Independents Catherine Murphy, Clare Daly, Maureen O’Sullivan, Joan Collins, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, Richard Boyd Barrett, Seamus Healy, Thomas Pringle, Shane Ross, Mick Wallace, and Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins voted for the measure.
So too did Labour’s Tommy Broughan, Roisin Shortall and former Labour TDs Patrick Nulty and Colm Keaveney.
Ms Murphy said the Government had to deal with this “barbaric” situation where women were forced to travel to Britain.
But Minister of State Alex White said the only way to allow for abortions with fatal foetal abnormalities was through another referendum. He told the House the “absolute preponderance of legal opinion is that this simply cannot be done and it is incompatible with the Constitution”.
Independent Michael Healy Rae said he wanted to humanise the reference to fatal foetal abnormalities and refer to “babies who are ill” but Ms Shortall said it was not about babies being ill but not surviving outside the womb.
After the vote, the Dail adjourned until 12.30 pm this afternoon and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin sharply criticised Government chief whip Paul Kehoe for his handling of the logistics and timing of the debate. “You’ve made an absolute shambles of this debate in the manner you’ve dealt with it,” he said.