Miriam Lord: Enda says it’s all down to the Constitution
Kenny invokes wisdom of Attorney General to shoot-down Clare Daly’s Bill
Clare Daly outside Leinster House following the defeat of the Fatal Foetal Abnormality Bill. Photograph: Fergal Phillips
Before explaining why his Government was about to vote down a Bill aimed at helping parents struggling to come to terms with a fatal diagnosis for their unborn child, the Taoiseach took out his trumpet and blew it.
Fair is fair, like.
What more does Clare Daly want?
Didn’t Enda’s Government, in its bountiful majesty, let her come up with her very own piece of legislation and lay it before Dáil Éireann, as if she were a real TD, like the lads across the floor from her on the Government benches?
Deputy Daly brought her proposed legislation before the House more in hope than expectation.
She knew at the outset what would happen. “The Taoiseach will frog-march his backbenchers in here to vote down my Private Members’ Bill, a Bill designed to support families who receive the devastating diagnosis that their pregnancy has a fatal abnormality incompatible with life.”
And she wasn’t wrong.
The independent TD listed the national and international expert bodies which indicated that this legislative move could be done. She pointed out that the overwhelming public support for the Government bringing in a change.
Not to mention the 50 Dáil deputies – including half the Cabinet – who are on record saying something must be done.
Clare Daly’s questions were simple: “What is that something? And who is going to do it?
“If not us, who? If not today, when?”
People, she said, are sick of excuses.
Not to mention those parents who have had to go abroad to terminate a pregnancy following the devastating news that their child is incompatible with life.
Some of them gathered in silent vigil outside Leinster House ahead of the vote on Daly’s Fatal Foetal Abnormalities Bill.
The Taoiseach’s initial response did him no favours.
As he spoke, we wondered: Did he really say that? But he did, because he repeated the line after the TD’s follow-up question on the subject.
“The first comment I make to Deputy Daly is that the reason she can bring her Bill in here is that the Government reformed Dáil procedures to allow for backbench deputies like herself to be able to bring Bills before the House.”
DisdainJoe Higgins looked across at floor with disdain and dripped: “We thank the Taoiseach.”
Enda, having patronised enough, moved on to explain why his Government would be voting against. The Cabinet was advised by the Attorney General that the legislation, as framed, is unconstitutional.
According to Article 15.4 of the Constitution, he pointed out, it is not lawful for legislators to vote for something which they know is “repugnant” to the Constitution.
But is it repugnant?
There are plenty of senior lawyers who argue otherwise and there is also case history, right up to the European Court, which suggests that this matter is not as open and shut as the Taoiseach might suggest.
However, when the Cabinet asks their appointed lawyer for an opinion, that opinion cannot be easily discounted.
And they did ask.
But what exactly they asked and how they framed their question is another matter.
Clare Daly, supported by other members of the opposition, wanted to know if the Attorney General’s decision would be published.
“Does he think it appropriate that highly paid parliamentarians are expected to come here to vote on such critical issues like nodding donkeys without full possession of the facts?”
As the Taoiseach and Deputy Daly crossed swords, the Labour benches remained unoccupied. The party was, at that moment, discussing what they were going to do in relation to the vote. Or, more to the point, the party was addressing those few deputies who were wavering over its decision to reject the Bill and not to allow a free vote to its TDs.
Anne Ferris, who voted for the Bill, spoke passionately at that meeting about the need to support those women who feel they cannot continue with their pregnancy while, in the words of Clare Daly, “waiting for their baby to die.”
Why can’t they end it at home, surrounded by family and friends instead of their government condemning them “to a lonely journey, most likely to Liverpool, surrounded by holidaymakers and businesspeople while the bottom falls out of their world.”
Ferris left the meeting in tears. Minister Alan Kelly ran after her, caught up with her outside and gave her a hug.
But passion is one thing.
Politics is another.
And it was very clear from the very start yesterday, that politics was always going to have the upper hand.
Back in the chamber, Daly refused to accept the Taoiseach’s explanation. “Multiple legal people are telling you that, under the Constitution, you can do this.”
A few rows down from her, the Fianna Fáil leader was hastily scribbling down a note which was passed to Clare who opened it out and left it on the ledge.
“1983, Barry Desmond – put it on record” it read, in large letters.
This was as the Taoiseach continued to argue that there was no precedent for publishing the Attorney General’s advice. It’s the tradition.
CowardlySinn Féin, meanwhile, took its courage in its hands and did the cowardly thing. The party abstained. Mary Lou McDonald wasn’t present.
But don’t blame the Government for voting down the second stage of this Bill so that it can’t now be discussed and amended in committee.
Blame the Constitution.
About 20 representatives from Terminations For Medical Reasons present knew in their hearts the Bill wouldn’t succeed. They said they had hoped more people would support them.
“Fifteen members of the Labour Party signed a letter of support in 2012” said Gerry Edwards.
“We had expressions of support from all sides, including Sinn Féin. We’re disgusted by their stance.”
They have passion. It’s no match for politics.
A general election is on the way. TDs want no truck with anything to do with the “abortion” word.
“Off the record? We’re sick of it” said one Government backbencher.
Gaye Edwards – wife of Gerry, shook her head at the political manoeuvrings.
“They’re sick of it? Well, they should get a diagnosis and see what that’s like.”