Independent Ministers warned free vote on Bill a once-off

Taoiseach says Cabinet’s failure to take a position on Bill will not happen again

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has warned Independent Alliance Ministers they will not be allowed to avoid Cabinet collective responsibility again after yesterday’s failure to reach a consensus on abortion.

The Government was unable to take a collective position on a Bill put forward by Independent TD Mick Wallace to allow for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

The decision represented a blow to the Government’s authority which Mr Kenny has sought to limit by insisting he will not allow collective responsibility to be circumvented again.

The Taoiseach agreed reluctantly to allow the Independent Ministers a free vote, but it is understood he robustly insisted this was a once-off and would not be facilitated on a regular basis.

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Mr Kenny began the discussion at Cabinet by outlining advice from the Attorney General that the Bill was unconstitutional and from the State’s chief medical officer that it was unworkable.

He spoke of his support for women’s rights and why he was fully committed to a citizen’s assembly to examine the abortion issue.

It is understood Minister for Transport Shane Ross and Minister of State at the Department of Health Finian McGrath defended their stance, with Mr McGrath telling the Taoiseach he could not vote against the Bill having supported it previously.

He said the Alliance were independent and could not be bound by any whip.

The Taoiseach is understood to have insisted he did not want to bounce them into voting a certain way but said they must adhere to collective responsibility in future.

It is understood Mr Kenny’s advisers also spoke to Mr Ross and warned this would be the last time Ministers would have a free vote.

The Cabinet agreed not to take a position on the proposed legislation but Fine Gael will still be bound by the party whip.

Government stability

The decision has been privately criticised by Fine Gael Ministers who believe it may set a precedent and could threaten the stability of the Government.

They pointed to the fact the other two Independent Ministers, Katherine Zappone and Denis Naughten accepted the responsibilities of being in government.

A second blow to the Government’s credibility came with the resignation of the chair of the expert commission on water charges Joe O’Toole.

Mr O’Toole stood down after controversial interviews where he spoke in favour of paying for water.

It is understood Minister for Housing Simon Coveney spoke to Fianna Fáil spokesman on housing Barry Cowen before contacting Mr O'Toole.

In a statement Mr O’Toole said: “Minister Coveney informed me that the main opposition party would not co-operate with Government on this and related issues for as long as I remained in the chair.”