The determination of Taoiseach Enda Kenny to keep his troops in line for the passage of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 through both houses of the Oireachtas could ultimately play a role in saving the Seanad from extinction.
Kenny is committed to getting restrictive abortion legislation through the Oireachtas by the summer break and to abolition of the Seanad in the autumn but there is no doubt which is more important. The fate of the Bill will be one of the defining features of his term as Taoiseach.
So far Kenny has managed to hold his party together on the abortion issue despite the fact that some of his TDs and Senators have real concerns about the implications of the legislation. To date the onslaught by the Catholic Church does not appear to have put any serious dent in the support for the Bill.
Most Fine Gael TDs believe that the bishops have wildly exaggerated the implications of the Bill. In particular they were appalled at the claim by Primate of All Ireland Cardinal Seán Brady that the Government was promoting a "culture of death". The decision of Cardinal O'Malley of Boston to boycott the awarding of an honorary degree to the Taoiseach at Boston College on Monday has further antagonised them.
Concerns expressed by Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin are a different matter. The archbishop is one of the few members of the hierarchy who still commands wide respect. Some Fine Gael TDs and Senators were seriously concerned when he expressed worries about the prospect of the legislation allowing late-term abortions due to the absence of any time limit.
"That is an appalling prospect if it were true. And I sincerely hope it is not,'' was the response of Fine Gael Seanad whip Paul Coghlan.
The Taoiseach quickly responded by saying that the constitutional protection for the unborn means there is a responsibility on doctors to protect and preserve both lives. Medical experts giving evidence at the Oireachtas hearings on the heads of the Bill yesterday reinforced the point that in any instances where a woman in late pregnancy was deemed to be suicidal, the life of the unborn would be protected if a termination was permitted.
So far the bulk of Fine Gael parliamentarians have not wavered in support of their leader’s position and even those expressing concern have been careful to leave their options open. While Kenny is relying in the first instance on his powers of persuasion to keep potential dissidents in line, he has also let it be known that he is prepared to use the full force of party discipline to punish any TDs or Senators who break ranks.
From the start he has ruled out any prospect of a free vote. This stems from his own experience of the appalling abuse TDs suffered back in 1983 when Fine Gael allowed its TDs a free vote on the wording of the constitutional amendment. Even though this debate is nothing like as vitriolic as it was then, Kenny knows the kind of pressure TDs would face if there was a free vote.
He has bluntly told his TDs and Senators that anyone who defies the whip will be cast out of the party for the foreseeable future and will have to contest the next election as Independents. The notion that they could vote against the Government and return to the fold in a year or so has been firmly scotched.
Kenny has staked his political reputation on getting the Bill passed before the summer recess. While he was forced into tackling the issue because of the European Court of Human Rights ruling and his Coalition agreement with the Labour Party, he has put all his weight behind it.
Ending the anomaly that has persisted for 20 years, since the Supreme Court decision in the X case, that there is no legal framework for the fact that abortion is permitted in cases where a mother's life is at risk – including the threat of suicide – will undoubtedly enhance his political reputation.
It was against this background of critical Dáil and Seanad votes on the Bill in the months ahead that Kenny took the decision to allow a second reading of the Seanad Reform Bill proposed by Feargal Quinn and Katherine Zappone.
While he had previously set his face against any prospect of a reformed Seanad, in case it diluted the straight Yes or No to abolition, circumstances dictated that he could not risk losing some of his Senators overboard at this stage. If they voted for the Quinn/Zappone Bill, as a number had indicated a willingness to, they would then have been outside the fold for the abortion legislation to come.
“Enda took a very pragmatic view. He wanted to keep the all sheep in the pen on this one because if some of them got out they might never be got back in,” said one supporter.
The decision to let the Seanad Reform Bill proceed has put a third way on to the political agenda. Those lining up to campaign for a No vote to the abolition of the Seanad now have a real alternative to put to the people. While the Government will not formally acknowledge that such an alternative exists it has given the No campaign the oxygen it needs to mount an effective action.
An Irish Times /Ipsos MRBI poll in February indicated that 58 per cent of people were prepared to vote for abolition, 20 per cent were against and 22 per cent had no opinion. The gap between Yes and No will narrow when the campaign gets under way. And if the No campaign can persuade people to accept that a reformed Seanad is a real possibility, people may be persuaded to think again.