Dara Calleary: FF split on abortion has not damaged party

Mayo TD believes the public saw Eighth Amendment as a hugely personal issue

Thirty-one members of Fianna Fáil, including deputy leader Dara Calleary and the party’s finance spokesman Michael McGrath,  urged voters to oppose the proposition to remove the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Fianna Fáil

Thirty-one members of Fianna Fáil, including deputy leader Dara Calleary and the party’s finance spokesman Michael McGrath, urged voters to oppose the proposition to remove the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Fianna Fáil

 

As deputy leader of Fianna Fáil, Dara Calleary was the party’s highest-ranking TD to campaign for the retention of the Eighth Amendment in May’s referendum.

In taking the opposite position to Micheál Martin, his party leader, Calleary was not alone among his parliamentary party colleagues.

More than half of Martin’s TDs and Senators advocated a No vote, a split that was illustrated in a now-famous group photo in Dublin’s Merrion Square.

Yet, despite the overwhelming vote for change, Calleary does not think any lasting damage has been done to Fianna Fáil as a result of the referendum.

The Mayo TD believes the public at large saw abortion as a hugely personal issue, and that it will not be a big factor in future local and general elections.

Others in his party privately disagree, and fear Fianna Fáil’s image has taken a hit among younger, urban voters in particular.

“This specific issue is one of the very few issues that is incredibly personal to people,” Calleary tells The Irish Times. “People take a very personal view about that issue, and that’s what people did in the party.”

That does not mean, Calleary adds, that the abortion issue has been stripped of all political potency. The 66 per cent vote in favour of Repeal was so overwhelming that the electorate expects their wishes to be respected, he says.

“What people are saying now is: Look, people respect that people took personal views but the electorate has spoken in a very strong way that they want this dealt with,” he says. “That they respect our personal views but they have given us an instruction, effectively, to go and deal with this along the lines of what was presented.”

Passes through

In the months ahead, this means ensuring the legislation giving effect to the proposed abortion regime, which allows for terminations up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, passes through the Oireachtas as speedily as possible.

Martin has granted his TDs a free vote, but has also sought to restrict their room for manoeuvre by insisting that any potential amendments be submitted through Stephen Donnelly, the party’s health spokesman.

For Calleary, any obstruction of legislation would be hugely damaging for Fianna Fáil.

“I think, were we as a party, to start obstructing the legislation, that’s then where damage will be done,” he says.

“There is still a free vote on it, but I would always say that you have got to look at the overwhelming result of the referendum. The fact that people want that implemented. There is a free vote and I am certainly not going to tell people what to do in relation to that.

“But people have voted on the issue for the first time in whatever, 30-odd years, and they have been very definitive of where they want it to go.”

The aftermath of the referendum has also seen Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael enjoy a bounce in opinion polls, with Fianna Fáil a distant second – and sometimes third – behind Sinn Féin.

Surpassed expectations

Calleary, as those in Fianna Fáil generally do, points to how Martin surpassed all expectations at the last election to come within a whisker of Fine Gael and government. Fianna Fáil, he says, will outperform the polls again.

But as one of those who survived the party’s electoral meltdown in 2011, Calleary is still “very much aware” of the fragile status of the party.

“We have got to work very hard in urban areas, in Dublin in particular, in cities. But then I see new people coming in, new blood coming in to the party.”

He also warns those – and there are still many in Fianna Fáil –- who dislike Martin and often seek to undermine him, that the Cork South Central TD is their party’s best asset.

“In terms of his connection with people, in terms of his political courage, not just in relation to the referendum but consistently over the years but his energy. When we go into any election, he is the team captain.”

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