Sinn Féin’s political opponents often describe the party as a cult but, on one issue at least, it is just like all other parties: views among members on abortion are divided, from top to bottom.
Unlike Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, however, Sinn Féin will adopt a policy on abortion at its ardfheis this weekend, and all TDs will have to toe the party line, no matter what they personally believe.
Whatever is decided upon – probably a further liberalising of the existing law – will be Sinn Féin’s policy during next year’s referendum on abortion.
Some party sources believe Gerry Adams’s recent statement that he favours a wide abortion regime, while also saying he can only support the party position, was a signal to others who may be tempted to stray from settled policy in the months ahead. Nobody is bigger than the party, in other words.
Yet signs are already there of rare divisions within the ranks, with public disagreements aired last weekend. Meath West TD Peadar Tóibín, who has long held anti-abortion views, criticised how the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment is conducting its work, from the balance of views on the committee to the witnesses coming before it.
Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin tweeted that Tóibín did not represent the party’s view, and further added he was “disappointed” his colleague “aligned himself with Mattie McGrath and Rónán Mullen in trying to undermine the work of the committee and the SF reps on it”.
Jonathan O’Brien, the party’s Cork North Central TD, who is on the committee, was equally scathing.
According to party sources, the spat had been coming for some time, with a feeling that Tóibín had been undermining the work of colleagues such as O'Brien, health spokesperson Louise O'Reilly and Senator Paul Gavan, who also sit on the committee. "They are doing the work for the party on the committee," said a source. "That probably pissed people off."
Patience, it seems, has worn thin and TDs have been asked to raise their issues in internal forums, such as at weekly meetings, rather than in public.
Correspondence was issued to O’Brien, Ó Broin and Tóibín this week directing them to keep the matter “in-house” and not to engage in public disputes online. Senior figures in the party also met Tóibín to discuss his comments and encourage him to promote the party position.
While rare, it is arguably no harm for Sinn Féin to have some disagreements in public, to blunt the arguments of its critics.
“On the one hand, if we all agree, you tell us we are in a cult,” said O’Reilly, who is known to hold pro-choice views but is studiously sticking the party position because of her health brief and position on the committee. “If we disagree, you say we are tearing each other to bits.”
The Sinn Féin ard comhairle, its executive council, has put a motion to the ardfheis broadening party policy. It will permit abortion when the health and mental health of the woman is at risk, adding to the previous position of allowing for abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.
The move, according to sources, reflects where the party and public are moving generally.
The procedure at a Sinn Féin ardfheis is that other motions which contradict the policy position of the ard comhairle motion will fall, if the ard comhairle motion is agreed.
However, motions calling for a free vote should be allowed because they are focused positions of conscience, rather than the policy itself.
A number of TDs also take issue with the assumption among some in Leinster House, such as those Fianna Fáil, that Sinn Féin's northern membership is generally more conservative than those in the south on abortion.
"It's more of an urban-rural thing," said one deputy. Another said that while places such as Tyrone and Fermanagh may be more conservative, cities like Derry and Belfast are not. The motions on the ardfheis clár bear this out.
“There is no way of categorising it,” said one TD. “The party is reflective of wider society.”
And, in this instance at least, reflective of other political parties – albeit with the additional discipline that is a Sinn Féin trademark.