No floodgates but same old departure gates

And there’s 14 more weeks of argument to come before the finalised Bill comes before the Dáil


A good day for Ireland? Maybe. A great day for Ryanair? Definitely.

With an airline ticket in one hand and a 14-year prison sentence in the other, an Irish government has finally found the gumption to legislate for the ruling in the X case.

In 1992 the Supreme Court found that when a pregnant woman’s life was in danger she had the right to an abortion in Ireland. It directed that legislation be enacted to allow women exercise this right.

The people, in two referendums, endorsed the decision. But nothing was done by successive administrations.

At midnight on Tuesday, after an astonishing 21-year gestation period, the legislative process began and the heads of the Bill miraculously emerged. It can be safely said that nobody on any side of the divisive abortion debate was handing out cigars yesterday.

The Taoiseach and Tánaiste held an early morning press conference outlining the key areas to be covered by the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. What they had to say was shoehorned into the crowded space of comment already raging across the airwaves.

And there’s 14 more weeks of argument to come before the finalised bill comes before the Dáil.

By then we should all know how many perinatal psychiatrists it takes to dance on the head of a pin and how the Government has made it easier for a pregnant woman to pass through the eye of a needle than for a virgin camel to go to heaven.

Or something like that.

And where abortion in Ireland is concerned, nothing will really change. That’s what the Taoiseach was at pains to point out when he came to the Dáil for Leader’s Questions.

He emphasised that the proposed measures do not change existing laws. He is merely fulfilling his Government’s constitutional duty and bringing “clarity and legal certainty to both women and doctors” with regard to the Supreme Court ruling.

Enda looked exhausted yesterday. When Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath got to his feet and started to ask questions about the economy, he looked almost grateful.

“I thank deputy McGrath for his comments and question,” he replied, in the face of this welcome attack on his Government’s capital investment programme.

Conciliatory tone
Inevitably, the subject returned to abortion. But Gerry Adams wasn’t looking for a scrap. In fact, not only did he adopt a conciliatory tone, he helpfully fed the Taoiseach a chance to repeat the harmless nature of this Bill for the benefit of his suspicious backbenchers.

Given “the alarmist suggestions” by some that this legislation represents “the thin end of the wedge” and “will open the floodgates”, he wanted reassurances that this is not going to be the case.

Enda was only too happy to oblige. Definitely no floodgates (just the same old airport departure gates.)

He thanked Gerry for his question. Gerry thanked Enda for his reply. Enda thanked Gerry for his reply to his reply.

This Bill was already proving historic in more ways than one. But the uneasy accord was a temporary lull.

Across in the Seanad, Senator Rónán “Floodgates” Mullen was deeply unhappy with what the Government had published.

“The more I read the heads of this Bill the more I feel that this is a really dark day . . . I am very disappointed that our Taoiseach has led us to this point,” he said, accusing Enda’s advisers and some of his Ministers of cooking up an unworthy political compromise.

The Dáil and Seanad must debate “the really noxious and sinister aspects of this Bill, which are certainly there”. Because this was about “opening the door to abortion and not just by a chink”.

Give those pregnant women a chink and they’ll take a mile of your floodgates.

But as the day wore on, and for all Mullen’s misgivings, one could detect a more relaxed attitude coming from the Fine Gael side.

It was beginning to sound like Enda’s Bill, which will do absolutely nothing to stem the flow of Irish women travelling to England for abortions (if anything, the thought of having to face a panel of medicos to decide if they pass muster will probably scare more of them on to the aircraft) had assuaged the troops.

“I think we’re scaling down from a code red situation,” remarked a party handler in the afternoon.

In the Dáil, and at the other end of the abortion spectrum to Floodgates Mullen, Clare Daly of the Disunited Left Alliance was marginally less unhappy than the Senator.

“I am glad that this legislation is before us, but let us be clear: what the Government has presented is the absolute minimum. The clear intention is to make it so restrictive that most women who will be affected will not bother and, instead, they will continue to make the journey to Britain so that the Government can continue to pretend that there is no Irish abortion.”

She was horrified by the proposed 14-year jail penalty for women who procure abortions in Ireland outside of the strict parameters of the proposed legislation. But she was fascinated to have been introduced to a new “specimen” of politician in recent weeks: “the Fine Gael backbencher, an entity that nobody knew existed. Suddenly, it has found a voice and a conscience.”

Where were they, she wondered, “when the rights of born children were being decimated by the cuts in child benefit, by the cuts in social welfare payments to youngsters with a disability and the cuts in education?”

That gave the vocal backbenchers food for thought. If Clare Daly is against the legislation, it can’t be all that bad. And they could get back to addressing that other vital issue: the protection of political life when there is a real or substantial risk to a deputy’s seat . . .