FitzGerald ‘railroaded’ into 1983 abortion referendum, Barry Desmond claims

Gemma Hussey recalls threatening letters warning ‘we know where you live’

 

The late Fine Gael taoiseach Dr Garret FitzGerald was “ politically railroaded’’ by Fianna Fáil’s Charles Haughey into agreeing to the controversial 1983 abortion referendum, former Labour minister Barry Desmond has claimed.

Mr Desmond, who was minister for health in the then Fine Gael-Labour coalition, refused to handle the referendum Bill in the Dáil because of his strong opposition to the wording, and responsibility for it was instead allocated by Dr FitzGerald to Michael Noonan, who was minister for justice.

Mr Haughey, as outgoing taoiseach in a minority Fianna Fáil government, had agreed to the wording in consultation with anti-abortion groups in advance of the November 1982 election, which saw Dr FitzGerald form a coalition with Labour leader Dick Spring as tánaiste.

Mr Desmond, who is retired from politics, told The Irish Times that Mr Haughey’s aim was to make abortion an election issue and set a political trap for Dr FitzGerald, who was expected to oppose the wording.

“Garret panicked and he was absolutely determined he would not be wrong-footed by Charlie, so he accepted the wording to get it off the pitch before the election campaign started,’’ said Mr Desmond.

‘Panic-stricken’

Dr FitzGerald was “panic-stricken’’ at the idea that Fine Gael would be cast as a pro-abortion party, he said.

“Charlie opportunistically decided to support whatever those advocating the amendment wanted... Considering he was a well-informed man on sexual matters, it was totally cynical.’’

The wording read: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to the life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.’’

Mr Desmond recalls Mr Spring and himself declining to endorse the wording during the election campaign, having taken legal and medical advice.

Those reservations were confirmed for them when they went into government and the Fine Gael-appointed attorney general Peter Sutherland warned against accepting it on legal grounds.

“Senior officials in my own department advised me the wording was a disaster, totally flawed, and open to all kinds of ambiguity,” said Mr Desmond. “There was no legal definition of the unborn.’’

Wording retained

Although there was some discussion on an alternative, the original wording was retained and the government’s referendum Bill was comfortably passed by the Dáil.

Fine Gael and Labour allowed a free vote, reflecting the deep divisions on the issue within the two parties, while Fianna Fáil applied the party whip.

Mr Desmond said it was a time in Ireland when “the voices of women were drowned out in a male-dominated Oireachtas’’.

When the wording was put to the people in a referendum in September 1983, it was passed by 67 per cent to 33 per cent, with voter turnout at 54 per cent.

The campaign was bitter and divisive. Mr Desmond, who represented Dún Laoghaire, recalled being denounced by priests from the altar.

“The Catholic Church strongly supported the referendum and the sermon in one church by a visiting priest was so strong that the local parish priest later apologised to me,” he added.

Pictures of the unborn

He recalled polling stations plastered with pictures of the unborn and manned by Fianna Fáil activists and members of anti-abortion groups.

Gemma Hussey, Fine Gael minister for education at the time, and the only woman cabinet member, also recalled the ferocity of the campaign. She opposed the amendment. “In some cases, families were split,’’ she said.

Ms Hussey remembers receiving anonymous letters, some of which she referred to the Garda Síochána. “They were written in red ink, with references to ‘we know where you live’ and ‘we know your children’,” she added.

In an earlier election, a leaflet was distributed in her Wicklow constituency claiming she was the only candidate favouring abortion.

“We never found out who was behind it,” she said.

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