Abortion vote: ‘no friction’ with Micheál Martin, says McGrath

Fianna Fáil leadership not in question over Eighth Amendment, says frontbencher

Eighth Amendment referendum: “We are taking the approach that each member of the parliamentary party can decide for themselves,” says Michael McGrath of Fianna Fáil. Photograph: Alan Betson

Eighth Amendment referendum: “We are taking the approach that each member of the parliamentary party can decide for themselves,” says Michael McGrath of Fianna Fáil. Photograph: Alan Betson


The Fianna Fáil frontbencher Michael McGrath has said there is no friction between him and the party’s leader, Micheál Martin, over their differing views on abortion. He also said Mr Martin’s decision to back repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and its replacement with legislation to allow terminations up the 12th week of pregnancy was not a leadership issue.

Mr McGrath, who is frequently mentioned as a possible successor to his Cork South-Central constituency colleague as Fianna Fáil leader, stressed that his decision to oppose the 12-week proposal had nothing to do with his leadership ambitions. He told Cork’s Red FM that, like Mr Martin, he had read the submissions to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and felt obliged to let voters know his position.

“I will vote for the referendum Bill to allow the Irish people decide what should be in the Irish Constitution, but if the question in the actual referendum is one to bring in unrestricted access for abortion up to 12 weeks, I will oppose that.”

Free vote

Mr McGrath said that in 2013 Mr Martin had agreed to his call for members of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party to have a free vote on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, and Mr Martin was now entitled to such an approach on the abortion issue.

“I felt it was the right thing to do, to have a freedom-of-conscience vote, but also I recognised the political reality it would not be fair to seek to impose one parliamentary party member’s views on another,” he said, pointing out that Fine Gael lost seven TDs and senators when it applied a whip in 2013.

“I just think we have to be much more mature about this. People have different views, and we have to respect that,” he said. “There isn’t any friction” with Mr Martin. “We are taking the approach that each member of the parliamentary party can decide for themselves.

“That’s the decision we made five years ago in the parliamentary party, and Micheál fully accepts that I, and others in the parliamentary party, can take a different view, and I fully accept that he can take a different view to me and others within the party, so there is genuinely no issue there.”

Fianna Fáil rumblings

Asked if there were any rumblings about Mr Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fail given that his position is now at odds with that of most of the parliamentary party and a motion passed at the Fianna Fáil Ardfheis, Mr McGrath dismissed any suggestions of its being a leadership issue.

“There was a meeting last night organised by Bobby Aylward. I didn’t go along, because it would have been misconstrued. A lot of media questions have focussed on internal party-leadership issues – is there unrest or dissent in the party? – so I made it clear I would not go to that.

“I think we can deal with this in our parliamentary party, because we took the decision five years ago to accommodate diverse views within the parliamentary party. That’s something I called for, and I was delighted when Micheál Martin made that decision as leader. It was a courageous move. And others have now followed suit.

“Was it really fair that members of Fine Gael who had real conviction on the issue were forced to leave their party because they wanted to follow their conscience in whatever direction it took? I think that was fundamentally unfair.

“We are taking a much broader and nuanced position, and there is no question of leadership or anything like that. You can’t have a situation in the party where everyone has a freedom-of-conscience vote and that doesn’t apply to the party leader.”

How does your representative intend to vote?

To find out how your TD, Senator or party intends to vote, use Pat Leahy’s abortion-referendum tracker, at www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/referendum-tracker.

What is the Eighth Amendment?

Article 40.3.3, also known as the Eighth Amendment, was inserted in the Constitution after a referendum in 1983. The amendment guarantees to protect as far as practicable the equal right to life of the unborn and the mother. It prohibits abortion in almost all cases. It states: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” This article was interpreted by the Supreme Court in its judgment in the X case in March 1992. It ruled that abortion is permissible in the State where the continuation of the pregnancy poses a real and substantial risk to the life, as opposed to the health, of the mother and where such a risk could not be averted except by means of an abortion. A substantial risk to the life of the mother included a risk of suicide.

What did the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment conclude?

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution concluded in December 2017 that article 40.3.3 should be removed from the Constitution and politicians should be allowed to legislate for abortion. After three months of evidence and a series of votes, the committee said the current regime for the termination of pregnancy is unfit for purpose and that constitutional reform is necessary. Legislation should be prepared to permit terminations up to the 12th week of pregnancy, without restriction, by way of a GP service, the committee said. It concluded that legislating to allow for abortions in cases of rape and incest would have presented significant challenges. It was the committee’s opinion that a verification process to prove someone was the victim of sexual assault was likely to be complex or even unworkable and could have caused further trauma to a victim. These difficulties and the availability of abortion pills led the members to agree abortions should be allowed up to 12 weeks of gestation. The committee’s final report also concludes abortions should be allowed when a mother’s life or health is at risk. Such a risk cannot be determined in legislation as it is dependent on individual circumstances and should be considered in a clinical setting.

To read more

Pat Leahy on the big questions the Cabinet must answer about the abortion referendum.