Several flashpoint issues but abortion a potential deal-breaker for Coalition
ANALYSIS:Report by expert group on abortion is next likely collision for Government
ON WEDNESDAY evening Minister for Health James Reilly was just completing a routine briefing to his Fine Gael colleagues about his plans for the health services when Waterford TD John Deasy interrupted him.
Deasy, who is known for his directness and truculence, demanded to know what action Reilly was going to take when the expert group on abortion would report back to him in September.
The Minister, a bit nonplussed because he was not expecting the question, began to explain that he would bring the group’s recommendation to Cabinet.
However, in what one of those present called an “unplanned ambush”, the Minister was met with a ferocious onslaught, as some 15 TDs in succession stood up to declare their vehement opposition to abortion.
There were two pieces of history and context to explain why this occurred. Fine Gael had a tremendous election last year which saw a lot of new TDs join its ranks in the Dáil, many of them in their 20s or 30s. Over the past four decades there has always been some tension between the party’s two wings; the more liberal social democrats and the more conservative Christian democrats. It was only on Wednesday night that the make-up of the new influx became obvious – they are overwhelmingly Christian democrat.
The second context was comments Reilly himself had made. When the Socialist Party TD Clare Daly had brought a Private Members’ motion calling for the legislature to give effect to the Supreme Court judgment in the X case (which legalised abortion in certain, very limited circumstances), Reilly had referred to seven governments shirking the issue and said he was committed to taking action. That raised alarm bells among some backbench TDs and there were clearly conversations and “mutterings” about it by groups over the past few weeks.
Wednesday’s showdown was not really planned but it sent a volley across the bows of Cabinet that backbench TDs wanted sight of the report and its recommendations before it went to Cabinet. New TDs such as Simon Harris and Regina Doherty were clear it was a red-line issue for them and several of those at the meeting said they would resign from the party rather than vote for such a measure.
What it also exposed was perhaps the biggest fault line. One TD who was at the meeting said: “I firmly believe that abortion will present a greater challenge than austerity for this Government.”
The following day, Labour TDs and Senators responded individually, with several saying the “very minimum” the expert group should do is legislate for the X case and argued that it would be wrong to delay it any further.
With such polar and vehement views from both parties on an emotive issue, this has the potential to cause major headaches for a Government that has had relatively few hiccups or rifts in its first 16 months.
However, it is one of several developments over the past few weeks which have shown there are flashpoints that will divide the Coalition parties, some with the potential to be deal-breakers.
Another big bone of contention has been the Croke Park agreement. It was part of the deal but it’s the one issue mentioned most by Fine Gael TDs as the downside to Coalition. They don’t like it. They resent that pay levels remain unaffected. When Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar complained about the continuation of increments last month, he was publicly stating what many backbench colleagues had been saying in private.