As decision day on the Government’s abortion legislation arrives it appears that Fine Gael is going to pay a heavier political price than had been anticipated for pushing the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill through the Dáil.
At least four Fine Gael backbenchers have committed to voting against the second stage of the Bill today but, more significantly, Minister of State Lucinda Creighton seems certain to vote against it at committee stage later in the week. The question is whether more of her colleagues will join her.
If the numbers mount, Enda Kenny could suffer his first serious setback as Taoiseach. The involvement of former party leader and taoiseach John Bruton in opposition to the legislation has added to his difficulties.
Ms Creighton yesterday expressed her unambiguous opposition to the suicide clause in the Bill saying the only way to avoid the introduction of what she termed “this flawed element of the legislation” was to omit it entirely. She urged Minister for Health James Reilly to do so.
There is no way the Government can drop the suicide clause after arguing for months that there is no other way to deal with the Supreme Court decision of 1992. Mr Kenny repeated this yesterday in tones just as unambiguous as Ms Creighton’s, maintaining that the legislation was strictly within the parameters of the Constitution and Supreme Court judgment in the X Case.
In light of his speech, it is difficult to see how the Bill can be amended in a way that would keep Ms Creighton on board.
Even if Mr Kenny considered such a move, it would provoke a huge breach in the Coalition and that is not on the cards. Ms Creighton said she will vote according to her conscience but that will involve her paying a high political price.
Voting against the Government will not only cost her the ministerial post but she will be expelled from the parliamentary party and will face a bleak political future in Fine Gael as long as Mr Kenny is leader. Given her strong opposition to him during the leadership heave in June 2010, it was a surprise he gave her the post of European Affairs. She has made a success of the job and has served the country well during Ireland’s EU presidency over the past six months.
What her political future will be after this week is anyone’s guess. Voting against the party whip is the cardinal sin, though it is possible allowances will be made in future because it was a clear issue of conscience.
The fact that her view of the legislation is the minority one in the party and in the country – going by polling on the issue – means she cannot be accused of taking a populist stance to put her in a strong position within Fine Gael in the post Kenny era.
Much will depend on how the legislation works out in practice. Whether it is the restrictive piece of legislation the Taoiseach and his Ministers insist, or whether it will allow for a more liberal abortion regime, only time will tell.
Ms Creighton did annoy some of her Fine Gael colleagues with her claim that she has stepped outside the “groupthink”. The implication is that they are trapped in a liberal group think that accepts abortion as “a liberal issue, a women’s rights issue and a cornerstone of the progressive agenda”.
In response Meath TD Regina Doherty insisted the Bill was about providing legal and medical clarity for existing rights for pregnant women.
With Billy Timmins, Brian Walsh, Peter Mathews and Terence Flanagan already committed to voting against the Bill, it means at least five Fine Gael TDs will be outside the party fold when the dust settles next week. Some others have expressed reservations and may adopt the same attitude as Ms Creighton. While the Government’s majority remains secure, the emergence of a dissenting group of Fine Gael TDs could change the political atmosphere considerably. Much will depend on whether they see their future in Fine Gael or whether they will give up on the party. The tough line taken by Mr Kenny towards Roscommon TD Denis Naughten augers badly for those who defy the whip on the abortion issue.
The dissidents will have plenty of time to ponder their future before the next election but in the meantime Fine Gael will suffer a wound that will be difficult to heal.