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.
For many in Labour, the biggest bugbear has been that income taxes have remained untouched for the highest earners, and anything that has been tried to bring more fairness to the system has been batted back by Fine Gael as being burdensome for business.
Labour Ministers have flown kites (perhaps unintentionally), including Pat Rabbitte and Brendan Howlin, who suggested taxes could not remain immune from change. Then there is Joan Burton, a serial purveyor of off- message remarks, who has infuriated Fine Gael with suggestions of employers paying for some periods of sick leave and an increase in PRSI.
And then there have been the personality clashes between Fine Gael and Labour Ministers, not least the row that erupted this week when Róisín Shortall issued a pointed press release letting it be known that she found out about HSE chief executive Cathal Magee’s impending resignation from the media. Reilly seems like a red rag to a bull for some Labour TDs; and Burton seems the equivalent for some Fine Gael backbenchers.
But tension of that kind is inevitable and manageable – as long as there are no deal-breakers.
“There are two different political parties,” says Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of Labour. “If there is no tension there, there must be something fundamentally wrong.”
LIKELY FAULT LINES: AREAS OF CONTENTION
Abortion: This has emerged as the only one that could seriously undermine the Coalition with stark divisions between the parties.
Croke Park: The Government is committed to implementing the Croke Park agreement until it ends next year. However, there has been sniping from Fine Gael TDs, including Leo Varadkar. Labour TDs view the deal as having delivered while the views from Fine Gael are almost uniformly negative.
Gay marriage: Eamon Gilmore has described it as “the civil rights issue of this generation”. Enda Kenny has refused to state his position. TDs and Senators from both sides don’t believe it’s going to be an issue and say it will get the go-ahead. Even younger Fine Gael TDs who oppose abortion don’t have strong views on it.
Alcohol: Róisín Shortall’s proposals to impose minimum prices and put restrictions on alcohol advertising and sponsorship of sporting events never made it to Cabinet. Several Labour TDs complained about the power of the drinks industry lobby, implying that pressure was being brought to bear on Fine Gael.
Budget and Ministerial clashes: One of the features in the run-up to last year’s budget was the kites being flown by Ministers. In the end, basic social welfare rates were protected and income tax rates were not increased. But with very low growth and a €3.5 billion adjustment planned, there is a growing belief that the status quo will not prevail. Both parties have tolerance thresholds on their principles, but most TDs seem to adopt a pragmatic viewpoint; that painful compromise is inevitable.
Future of Seanad: The biggest signs of unease within Labour has emerged in the Seanad but that seems to reflect internal tensions. There are a number of new Labour Senators who are very opposed to abolishing the second chamber. However, it is the settled policy of both parties and it is unlikely that a small group of recalcitrant Senators will reverse that.