Deal on Eighth Amendment bill hides Cabinet cracks

Enda Kenny told colleagues he was willing to sack Shane Ross if necessary

Fine Gael's Kate O'Connell clashed with Paul Murphy in a late night debate over the Eighth Amendment bill. Video: Oireachtas

 

Enda Kenny was never going to agree to a free vote on a Dáil vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Having been undermined in July, he knew he could not, again, allow Cabinet ministers to cherrypick the issues they will support.

The Independent Alliance knew that, but still they pushed ahead with their demands for a free vote on the Private Members’ Bill proposed by the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit .

It sought to repeal the constitutional amendment that places the life of the unborn on an equal footing to that of the mother – a long way from the Programme for Partnership promise to establish a citizen’s assembly.

Negotiations between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance on the vote only began late last week. Eight days ago, Minister for Transport Shane Ross told his colleagues that they needed to show some backbone.

A conscience vote had to be insisted upon, he said. When some of his colleagues reminded him of the Programme for Partnership commitments, Ross shrugged them off.

Their co-ordinator, Tony Williams, passed on news of the decision to FG. It was greeted with dismay. How could Cabinet Ministers seek to defy the document it spent 70 days debating and designing?

Chancing their arm

Privately, some in the Independent Alliance admit they were chancing their arm, though Kevin “Boxer” Moran, who is the assistant government whip, denies that.

“We knew that unless we came to a conclusion that suited both of us, opposition TDs would continue to put forward similar motions and we would find ourselves fighting the same arguments over and over again.”

The Taoiseach’s chief of staff, Mark Kennelly, was tasked with talking the Alliance down from its ledge, though talks were slow to begin. Kenny had two days at a Brussels summit. Ross was absent due to the death of his mother.

Privately, however, Kenny made clear he was not for compromise, telling colleagues at last Saturday’s Fine Gael Presidential dinner that he would not accept a free vote and was willing to sack Ross if necessary.

Having secured a free vote three months ago, the Alliance was surprised by Kenny’s inflexible tone. They knew luck was not on their side this time and a deal had to be struck before the Dáil debate yesterday evening.

Williams and Kennelly shared wordings on Sunday evening. Discussions took place all day Monday, primarily between Minister for Health Simon Harris and Ross. A final draft was agreed at 1.20 am on Tuesday.

Harris and Ross met at 9 am on Tuesday before Cabinet. The Government would put forward a counter-motion which would ensure it does not pass second stage in the Dáil. Independent Alliance TDs would vote for it.

In return, the Alliance won a commitment that an Oireachtas committee to examine the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly would report back within six months.

Political draw

It also got agreement that it can have votes of conscience on other proposals not contained in the Programme for Partnership. The agreement can be labelled a political draw.

For Fine Gael the Cabinet has agreed a collective position and the Government remains intact. The Alliance will be content that it has an arrangement in place for future votes.

But despite what the Alliance proclaims, it does not bring a referendum any closer. The six month timeframe for the Oireachtas committee, like most things in Irish politics, will no doubt be extended.

It is tasked with the hardest part of the process. If the assembly proposes a referendum the Oireachtas committee will be tasked with finding a wording and a potential replacement for the eighth amendment.

That will take longer than six months and no Cabinet will seek to guillotine that committee. In any case the earliest a referendum could be held will be early 2018.

The implications of the agreement, however, are far-reaching. The Taoiseach’s decision to allow a free vote to the Alliance on all non-Programme for Partnership commitments is just asking for trouble.

The Opposition will seek to drive new wedges between FG and the Alliance. Trust has been further eroded. Kenny and Ross ’s relationship has deteriorated, again. The agreement hides cracks but does little to secure the foundations .