Abortion stance could damage Fianna Fail’s youth appeal
Fianna Fáil more conservative than public at large but party may not take official position
If Fianna Fáil does not take a position, the public’s perception of the party will be shaped by what Micheál Martin himself does. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Just before the Fianna Fáil ardfheis passed a motion effectively calling for the Eighth Amendment to be retained, delegates were warned about finding themselves on the opposite side of the abortion debate to the young, urban voters they desperately need.
Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London told a session in the RDS that in the UK, politics is now largely split along age rather than class lines.
Noting that next year’s referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution could be something that divides voters along a young-old, urban-rural divide, Bale suggested that, while there is currently a place for a conservative, small-town party, there may not be much of a future for one.
It is also argued, and on good grounds, that a young-old, urban-rural schism cannot be applied to the abortion issue.
The most recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed there is no major difference, in terms of age and location, when people are asked if they would vote for abortion in limited circumstances, such as in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.
In urban areas, 73 per cent would vote yes, 15 per cent no, and 12 per cent were undecided. In rural Ireland, the same figures were 66 per cent yes, 21 per cent no and 13 per cent undecided.
When broken down by age, those between 18-24 went 71 per cent in favour, compared to 63 per cent no among those over 65. Fianna Fáil voters were less likely to vote yes that those of other parties, but not by a massive amount.
Fianna Fáil sources, while acknowledging the split in the party on abortion, argued the ardfheis debate on the issue had been stuffed with those against any change. “Of course it was,” said one. “But isn’t that what happens in a democracy?”
While party figures may point out that the ardfheis vote is not representative of the organisation as a whole, it is still fair to assume Fianna Fáil is more conservative than the public at large.
Micheál Martin faces a difficult task in bringing his party through the abortion debate. He has already said TDs and senators will be free to vote according to their conscience, and party sources say this will apply throughout the entire process, from a vote in the Oireachtas to hold a referendum to polling day.
It is likely, however, that those on the anti-abortion wing will vote for the referendum itself to take place. Waterford TD Mary Butler – who has said she “will never stop a heartbeat” – says she supports holding the referendum, even though she does not support any change to the current regime.
Against that, Fiona O’Loughlin of Kildare South says she “cannot make a judgment” in relation to a woman who finds themselves in a crisis pregnancy situation.
Senior figures in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael believe that only a limited proposal has a chance of passing in a referendum and whatever wording is put to the people will ultimately be decided between their parties.
Martin and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar face similar problems and, in drafting a referendum wording, their interests will align.
One Fianna Fáil TD suggested that while both leaders have granted free votes, pressure may have to be discreetly brought to bear on some deputies to get the wording through the Dáil.
While that may not be a problem for Martin, how to manage his party will be trickier once the Dáil ratifies a referendum.
Take a position
Opinions differ on whether Fianna Fáil should actually take a position and allow members campaign according to their views, or not take a position at all in order to give complete freedom of conscience. The latter scenario is more likely.
If Fianna Fáil does not take a position, the public’s perception of the party will be shaped by what Martin himself does. “I would think that the party view comes from the top down, not the bottom up,” said one TD.
Sources say Martin will take part in public debates during the campaign, although some of his TDs may prefer to keep their heads down.
Hopes that civil society groups can take the lead in the debate are dismissed.
“The NGOs are at the two extremes,” said a party figure, adding that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael “represent middle Ireland . . . they can be the reasonable voice of middle Ireland”.
For that to happen, Martin must take a clear position and personally campaign for it. His party will not be fully behind him, but responsibility for the final public view of Fianna Fáil’s handling of the coming, contentious months will fall on his shoulders.