Abortion referendum has caused unrivalled division within Fianna Fáil

Question being asked is will Fianna Fáil ever be relevant to the new generation of voters?

Micheál Martin issued a very clear message to the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party on Tuesday night to implement the decision of the people on the Eighth Amendment.

The Fianna Fáil leader said the outcome of the referendum was as clear and decisive as it could possibly have been, and left legislators with no doubt about what they must do.

No direction or instruction was given, but Martin pointed members to Fianna Fáil’s tradition as a republican party, and indicated they should accept the decision made by the electorate. He would meet with each individual member of the parliamentary party over the coming weeks.

There was obviously an expectation that Martin’s intervention was coming as the meeting was better attended than most parliamentary party gatherings on a Tuesday evening. Many expected trouble and it came.

The party’s spokesman on public expenditure, Barry Cowen, raised the prospect of imposing a whip on TDs and Senators to ensure they supported the legislation to give effect to the people’s decision. He said this should be offered as a gesture to Martin, who had shown leadership in the campaign.

Up until now members of Fianna Fáil have been entitled to freedom of conscience.

Cowen also questioned the decision of many TDs and Senators to actively avoid the subject matter, and suggested they should have been engaged with their constituents on the issue.

The comments were met with anger and a great deal of angst within the party. Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry said each members had a “shared ownership” of the party, and should not be dictated to by a small number of people within the organisation.

MacSharry told members that TDs and Senators could not tell their constituents how to vote on this issue.

Mood changed

It was clear the mood in the room had changed, and the meeting ended moments later rather abruptly. Donegal TD Charlie McConalogue could sense where this was headed, and urged members to use their meeting with the leader to trash out the issues.

Despite what they say in public the referendum on the Eighth Amendment has caused unrivalled internal division within Fianna Fáil. The difficulty for it now is containing the damage done.

The party has reached a difficult crossroads. This juncture is about more than the issue of abortion; it is a question of whether the party is, or ever will be, relevant to this new generation of voters.

The referendum on the Eighth Amendment secured support from all age categories bar the over-60s. But it also resulted in a revolution among younger voters, particularly amongst women aged between 18 and 34 turning out to cast their vote.

Their preferences at the next general election are unlikely to be based solely on the issue of abortion, but their perception of individual political parties is shaped by where those parties stood in this era of societal change.

Despite the endeavours of Martin and a small number of others within the party, Fianna Fáil appears out of touch with that generation of voters and is squatting on an ageing quota. That poses the most difficult challenge for the party and its sustainability.

“How did most of my colleagues think this would be beaten? They ignored this social revolution. That shows how removed they are from the reality of it,” one frontbench TD said.

The same TD gives Fianna Fáil 12 to 14 years “unless something drastic changes” and “the death spiral takes over and you cannot rescue it”.

Standing still

Many commentators have written off Fianna Fáil before, and the party has always outperformed its critics. However, there is a growing realisation within the party that Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are experiencing generational change while Fianna Fáil is standing still.

In 2013, six party TDs supported the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act to allow for abortions when there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the mother. Five years later nine TDs supported the repeal of the Eighth Amendment.

Some 21 members voted against the holding of a referendum to allow the people give their say.

If change is occurring within the party it is happening at a glacial pace, and is falling significantly behind the change occurring in society.

That raises questions about leadership. Martin argued strongly in favour of repeal. He met an immediate backlash within the parliamentary party and the wider grassroots. However, he got it right and they got it wrong.

The difficulty for Martin is that the next general election is his last attempt at securing office. If he fails the party will move on. Many members within the party have already begun identifying his replacement.

Martin’s constituency rival Michael McGrath was the most likely contender but recent events have written his chances off.

It appears first-time TD Lisa Chambers is being primed for the position by many within the party, even Martin's closest allies.

Chambers provided leadership in the referendum campaign where Martin could not. She is young, bright, articulate and an obvious rival to Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald.

Most vocal opponent

Those questions are for the long-term. In the short-term there are questions for those members who advocated for No. For example, the party's most vocal opponent to repealing the Eighth Amendment was Waterford TD Mary Butler. Her constituency voted 69.4 per cent in favour of repeal.

In Eamon Ó Cuív’s constituency of Galway West, 65.9 per cent of people supported removing article 40.3.3 of the Constitution.

The constituency of Cork South Central – where Martin, who supported repeal, rivals Michael McGrath – voted 68.84 per cent.

That could be looked at two ways – either those TDs are out of sync with their constituents or the 30 per cent who voted No will assure them re-election.

One senior TD said the results challenged the motives of those TDs. “Most constituencies were 70:30 in favour of repeal. We went the other way. That proves most of it was not genuine. It was selfish and pure political opportunism.”

Whatever the intent, the effect of their decision has cast doubt over whether Fianna Fáil can meet its ambition of being a unifying force and a vehicle for progressive change.