After 20 years of inaction, leaders still afraid of Act


DÁIL SKETCH:When the heartbreaking story of Savita Halappanavar’s death was published, there was no doubt that it would dominate Leader’s Questions in the Dáil. It had to be the main focus of discussion, if our leading politicians possess any claim to relevance.

The whole country was talking about the shocking circumstances surrounding Savita’s death in Galway University Hospital last month. Not just the country, but the world, as news organisations picked up on this shameful episode.

Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin duly addressed it, but they chose their words very, very, very carefully.

Both men looked extremely uncomfortable as they attempted to talk about what happened while sidestepping the political minefield that is the abortion question.

Savita Halappanavar’s husband says his wife died from blood poisoning having been repeatedly refused a termination while suffering a miscarriage. He claims she was forced to suffer on for days in agonising pain until the foetal heartbeat stopped.

The Taoiseach and the Fianna Fáil leader extended their sympathies to the dead woman’s family. They agreed that this was indeed a very sad and tragic situation.

But as for the issues it opened up? They didn’t want to go there. Martin went down the safe route of requesting that the matter be thoroughly investigated.

He didn’t mention anything about when a pregnancy can be terminated, nor did he mention the failure of successive governments over the last 20 years to legislate for abortion in certain circumstances after the Supreme Court ruling in the X case.

This was not surprising on two counts: firstly, he knows Fianna Fáil was in power most of that time and he was a minister for health for part of it. Secondly, there isn’t a bargepole long enough for a party leader to push the hugely divisive issue of abortion off the agenda.

They don’t want to touch it.

So Micheál talked about an inquiry. Nothing more.

Kenny was happy to follow that line. Two investigations had already been established and their findings were awaited, he said.

Yes, both Enda and Micheál agreed – studiously avoiding any mention of abortion or legislation – a good inquiry is the only way to go.

What to do? The two leaders – they’ve been around the political block a few times – sounded as if they had just been landed with a brand new conundrum and needed time to work out an answer.

“Legislate!” sighed Joan Collins of the United Left Alliance, losing her patience. “That might help. It’s ridiculous.” Having asked his two questions, the Fianna Fáil leader sat down, relieved.

Gerry Adams was next. “I realise there are strongly held opposing views, including within Sinn Féin and throughout society, on the issue of medical termination,” the Sinn Féin leader said, employing the T word for the first time and bringing up the 1992 X case ruling.

“However, the people spoke in a referendum and firmly placed the responsibility upon the Oireachtas to deal with the issue by means of legislation . . . When will the Government bring forward legislation, as promised?”

Enda talked and he talked but managed not to mention termination or legislation.

So Gerry tried again and some of his colleagues chimed in for good measure. When is that legislation coming? Whereupon Enda had a cut at him over his expenses at Westminster, then went off on a baffling tangent about Mary Lou McDonald.

Legislating for abortion – even with the 1992 Supreme Court ruling to blame and the 2010 European Court decision in the ABC case to hide behind – is something Enda would rather ignore (as did the leaders of six administrations before him). Whatever his personal opinions might be, the Taoiseach knows it’s the one issue that will cause mayhem in his party.

The same goes for Labour.

If this legislation ever comes around, it will be a tortuous debate, particularly if senior politicians can’t even address the issue without talking in riddles.

A group of independent deputies put it up to the Government. “I am boiling mad that this has occurred in this country,” fumed Clare Daly, whose Bill to deal with the Supreme Court decision was defeated earlier this year.

“It would appear that this beautiful young woman is dead as a result only of political cowardice. The failure of successive Governments, including this Government, to provide for a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion where her life is in danger, is absolutely outrageous.”

Joe Higgins castigated the Taoiseach for his “pathetically deficient” response to Ms Halappanavar’s death. “Like a scared rabbit caught in headlights, he counselled no rush to make a judgment on legislation for the X case. Would somebody tell this out- of-touch Taoiseach that it is 20 years since legislation was demanded?”

And outside the gates of Leinster House, the protesters gathered, as they did in other cities around Ireland.

True to type, Mick Wallace was tearful, but understandably so: “How could they let a young woman go to save a baby who would die anyway?”

Maybe there is another explanation, but if there isn’t, we should hang our heads in shame. We should do anyway – after 20 years of inaction – with Kenny and Martin leading the way. That’s what leaders do – but not here.