Rift is last thing the Coalition needs ahead of resumed Dáil session

Tue, Aug 28, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:SENIOR FIGURES in both Coalition parties are determined that a controversy about abortion should not be allowed to cause divisions at a time when there are major budgetary decisions looming in the next Dáil session.

A row over abortion is the last thing Fine Gael and Labour need as they face into decisions on contentious issues such as property tax and reform of the welfare system.

“As a Government we have enough on our plate getting the economy right without getting bogged down in another abortion row,” one senior Minister said.

While this feeling is shared by most senior Fine Gael and Labour Ministers, some backbench TDs and Senators take a different view and are lining up to take contrary views on the argument.

The programme for government committed the Coalition to the establishment of an expert group to examine what action should be taken in response to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights that legislation should be introduced to give effect to the judgment of the Supreme Court in the X case.

While the Labour Party favours drawing up legislation to give effect to the European court decision, a number of Fine Gael TDs have signalled their strong opposition to such a move if it could be interpreted as legalising abortion.

At a parliamentary meeting in July, up to 15 Fine Gael TDs said they would oppose legislation that would pave the way for abortion and insisted the findings of the expert group on abortion be discussed with them before it is brought to Cabinet.

Two of the party’s TDs even indicated that they would vote against any such law in the Dáil, even in the event of a Government whip being imposed.

It is important, however, to put that meeting in context.

Some of the Fine Gael TDs and senators were angry at what they perceived as an attempt by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore to force the Coalition’s hand on gay marriage.

Some of the others who spoke strongly on the issue came from the small hard-core anti-Kenny faction and they were putting the leadership on notice that they could not be taken for granted.

Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton argued at the meeting that the State was not bound by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, which is an institution of the Council of Europe, in contrast to the European Court of Justice which interprets EU law and whose judgments are binding.

One way or another, Fine Gael TDs and senators are speaking in a vacuum as the expert group will not report until next month at the earliest. It will be some time after that before the Government makes up its mind on how to respond to the findings of that group.

The 14-person expert group, which contains a range of medical and legal experts, under the chairmanship of Mr Justice Seán Ryan, was established in January. While it is due to report next month, it will be no surprise if the timetable slips.

Abortion has been a contentious issue for more than 30 years since the Pro Life Campaign persuaded Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to support an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting abortion. The X case of 1992 brought the issue back into the political agenda and it has never gone away.

The difficulties of bringing the issue to a conclusion are illustrated by the fact that the Irish people have twice rejected an attempt by the government of the day to pass a constitutional amendment which would take account of the X case.

Albert Reynolds’s attempt to deal with the “substantive issue” was rejected in 1992 and Bertie Ahern’s broadly similar solution was rejected in 2001.

In the absence of a public consensus on how to deal with the matter, the Coalition is likely to long-finger it – at least until next year’s budget is out of the way.

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