An unfortunate end to Dáil’s deliberations on the most sensitive of topics
Savita case meant thorny problem could no longer be left aside
The level of public support for the basic tenets of the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Bill 2013 varies in opinion polls depending on whether the words “X case” or “suicide” are included within the question. However any detached reading of the various polls suggests that the policy reflected in the Bill enjoys the support of about two-thirds of the electorate.
The government’s initial response to the expert group report when it was published was an example of what should be best practice in law-making. Cabinet made a relatively quick decision on which of the expert group’s options to implement. The “heads” of a Bill were produced almost simultaneously. These were referred to a pre-legislative committee process where legal and medical experts were asked to offer their view. A full draft of legislation was published shortly afterwards. This again was considered at committee hearings, at which an even wider range of experts were heard. When the full legislation came to the Dáil, the Second Stage debate was reasoned and comprehensive.
Then however the government began to make mistakes, perhaps because Fine Gael ministers were spooked by the risk of large-scale defections.
The Committee Stage of the legislation was dealt with in the Dáil’s health committee rather than as a committee of the full house, which could have been justified given the legislation’s significance. While the Dáil committee deliberations were lengthy and any TD could speak, only those who were members of that committee could propose amendments. This was partly the reason why so many amendments were proposed and had to be debated when the legislation returned to the full Dáil at fourth stage this week.
When it became clear that the fourth stage debate was moving slowly, Fine Gael party managers panicked. Anxious, in the Taoiseach’s own words, to “get rid” of the legislation as soon as possible, the government whips proposed at 10pm on Wednesday night that the sitting would run to midnight and later again insisted on an all-night sitting to 5am. It was a bizarre decision.
After delaying 30 years to introduce legislation to implement the 1983 referendum and 21 years since the X case, TDs could have allowed themselves one more day to make sure they were fully awake when finally passing the Bill. Instead the final stages descended at times to farce with one tired government deputy pressing the wrong voting button and another engaging physically in the chamber with a female colleague, creating images which went viral around the world.
The government whips have only themselves to blame for the shambles into which that Thursday morning’s “late night” session descended. It was an unfortunate end to the Dáil’s deliberations on this most sensitive of topics. Now the legislation goes to the Seanad.