Sinn Féin rejects motion for conscience vote on abortion law
Party ardfheis hears strong criticism of anti-abortion TD Peadar Tóibín
Peadar Tóibín TD, pictured at the Sinn Féin ard fheis in 2015, did not speak during the party’s debate on Saturday on changing its policy toward abortion. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
The Sinn Féin ardfheis has cleared the way for party TDs and senators to vote for legislation allowing for abortion up to 12 weeks when it comes before the Oireachtas.
Delegates at the ardfheis in the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, supported a motion to allow the party ard chomhairle, its executive board, decide policy on abortion.
The motion says: “Sinn Féin members in a legislature shall act in line with the view of the ard chomhairle, which will be informed by the best available medical advice when legislating regarding the limited gestational period.”
It means that the approach to future votes in the Dáil, Seanad and Stormont Assembly will be determined by the party leadership.
A different motion requesting that all “Sinn Féin members be allowed to articulate and vote on the issue of abortion in accordance with their conscience” was rejected.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald attended the debate, as did Michelle O’Neill, the party leader in Northern Ireland.
Ms O’Neill said the recent vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was a “vote for compassion”.
The previous Sinn Féin policy was in favour of repeal and allowing for abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities and when there is a risk to the life, health, or mental health of the mother.
Ms O’Neill said allowing for abortion up to 12 weeks, in line with the legislation the Government will put before the Oireachtas, allows for the previous policy to be implemented in practice.
“No one is saying that members can’t have a conscience,” Ms O’Neill said. “But there is a distinct difference between our own personal views and our role as legislators.
“We are not independents, we are the Sinn Féin party. We are a grassroots movement, we are not a parliamentary party. We will not make that distinction.”
There were numerous speakers against allowing for conscience votes, and applause for those who criticised elected representatives who spoke against party policy. Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín played a prominent role on the No side during the referendum campaign.
Dublin Mid West TD Eoin Ó’Broin said “being a TD also comes with a responsibility”, adding that deputies were elected because of the efforts of Sinn Féin members.
“I speak and vote for you,” he said of his Dáil contributions, adding that a conscience vote would “undermine” one of the core values of Sinn Féin.
Cathy Power, a delegate from Dublin, said she was “bursting with pride” during the referendum campaign because of the role played by Ms McDonald.
She also paid tribute to party members who tabled motions at previous ard fheiseanna to liberalise Sinn Féin abortion policy.
No -voting TDs silent
Over the course of a 90 minute debate, with speeches restricted to a minute and half each, only five people spoke in favour of allowing for votes of conscience.
The arguments put forward by those advocating such an approach included the historical precedent of conscience votes; that Sinn Féin will be a “a cold house for pro-life voters”; and that some members who are opposed to abortion could leave the party.
Mr Tóibín did not speak, nor did Carol Nolan, the Offaly TD who also campaigned for a No vote.
Ellen Norton, national women’s officer for Ógra Shinn Féin said it was “utterly disrespectful” to party members to submit a motion on a conscience vote, after it had been rejected at three previous ard fheiseanna in recent years. “Sinn Féin are a political party, not a social club,” she said.
Aengus Ó Snodaigh, the party whip in the Dáil, said a conscience vote would deny party delegates the chance to influence party policy.
Daisy Mules from the Martin McGuinness cumann in Derry said many party members were “horrified” to see elected representatives speak out against party policy. She said she had to publicly defend the party position when it was against abortion.
“I was nevertheless expected to defend Sinn Féin’s total opposition to abortion,” she said. “I did, with great difficulty, but I did.”
She said elected representatives should no longer be permitted to speak out against party policy. “Comrades, this is totally unacceptable,” she said, to applause, of those defying party policy,
Louise O’Reilly, the health spokeswoman in the Dáil, said she has previously said that “Sinn Féin are not me féin”.
“I say it again: We are Sinn Féin, we are not me féin. We debate, we discuss, then we vote and that vote guides our legislators and our elected representatives.”
Donegal TD and finance spokesman Pearse Doherty received applause when he said elected representatives could not shirk their responsibility and that it was not acceptable to have TDs and MLAs voting against what the ardfheis had decided or what party policy said.
“That’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to the people who vote for us.”
Enda Fanning, a Dublin councillor, said - to supporters of Mr Tóibín - this ardfheis should really “draw a line in the sand”.