Labour TD 'mistakenly' votes against Government on abortion

Clare TD Michael McNamara will not lose party whip

A Labour Party backbencher has shocked his colleagues by voting against the Government and with independents who called for provision to be made in the abortion legislation to allow terminations in the case of fatal foetal abnormality.

Clare TD Michael McNamara took his party and coalition colleagues by surprise when he joined 18 other TDs who voted for the inclusion of fatal foetal anomalies in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill along with provision for inevitable miscarriages.

The Government won the vote by 124 to 19.

The barrister had previously expressed his concern about the issue.

However, Labour Whip Emmet Stagg has insisted Mr McNamara’s vote was a “genuine mistake”. While it cannot be changed on the Dáil record, Labour is accepting it was an error and the Clare TD will not lose the whip.

During the second stage debate on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, Mr McNamara suggested it was hypocritical of the Government not to make the case for provision for fatal foetal abnormalities when it had argued in the European Court of Human Rights that in the case taken by Ms D on this issue, she had not exhausted all the remedies in the domestic courts and could have got relief from the Irish courts had she done so.

Mr McNamara said the State was now saying it could not legislate for this, when he said a legal argument to be made for it.

In dramatic scenes just before the debate on the Bill was adjourned at 5am, Mr McNamara voted against the Government on an amendment tabled by the technical group which called for abortions to be allowed in cases where there were fatal foetal abnormalities or inevitable miscarriages.

Mr McNamara’s wholly unexpected defiance of a three-line party whip evoked a shocked reaction from his colleagues. The Kerry TD Arthur Spring appealed to him to change his vote before the period for voting came to an end. Immediately afterwards a group of Labour deputies gathered around him trying to convince him to change his mind.

Party whip Emmet Stagg asked him if had he made a mistake and one of his colleagues repeatedly said: “I appeal to you Michael” in an attempt to make him reconsider his vote. His decision to defy the whip, if maintained, would normally mean automatic expulsion from the parliamentary party.

As he left the chamber, he was followed by a number of colleagues who huddled around him outside and made urgent appeals to him, before he was quickly ushered down a corridor. Mr McNamara’s vote was made electronically but no manual vote was called, where Deputies have to physically pass through the lobby to record their vote.

However, the party maintained a little later that Mr McNamara would not lost the whip as he had made a “genuine mistake” and had pressed the wrong button. Mr Stagg said Mr McNamara had assured him in conversation that it was a genuine mistake. “It’s not possible to change the record of the house because he pressed the wrong button but that’s the way it is. He will be voting with the Government on all other stages of the Bill. In that situation there will be no expulsion,” Mr Stagg said.

Tánaiste and party leader Eamon Gilmore was not in the Dáil for the vote as he is abroad on Government business.

In those circumstances, it is unclear why Mr McNamara did not reverse his vote in the chamber when Mr Spring appealed to him. The Clare TD left Leinster House without making any comment.

Several of his colleagues, including Minister of State Kathleen Lynch, had argued in the course of the debate that there may be a case for extending future abortion laws to provide for fatal foetal abnormalities. However, they had accepted that such a development could not happen in the context of this legislation.

The Labour Party had, until Mr McNamara’s vote, shown a strong party discipline and had consciously maintained a slightly background stance, because of the sensitivities of Fine Gael’s position.

The defection of Mr McNamara, even if Labour manages to repair its hand and reverse it, has damaged that show of unity and also dampened what was considered a successful effort by the Fine Gael leadership to contain its defections to a maximum of five TDs.

All Fianna Fail TDs voted with the Government and against the opposition on the issue.

Independents Catherine Murphy, Clare Daly, Maureen O’Sullivan, Joan Collins, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, Richard Boyd Barrett, Seamus Healy, Thomas Pringle, Shane Ross, Mick Wallace, and Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins voted for the measure.

So too did Labour’s Tommy Broughan, Roisin Shortall and former Labour TDs Patrick Nulty and Colm Keaveney.

Ms Murphy said the Government had to deal with this “barbaric” situation where women were forced to travel to Britain.

But Minister of State Alex White said the only way to allow for abortions with fatal foetal abnormalities was through another referendum. He told the House the “absolute preponderance of legal opinion is that this simply cannot be done and it is incompatible with the Constitution”.

Independent Michael Healy Rae said he wanted to humanise the reference to fatal foetal abnormalities and refer to “babies who are ill” but Ms Shortall said it was not about babies being ill but not surviving outside the womb.

After the vote, the Dail adjourned until 12.30 pm this afternoon and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin sharply criticised Government chief whip Paul Kehoe for his handling of the logistics and timing of the debate. “You’ve made an absolute shambles of this debate in the manner you’ve dealt with it,” he said.

Earlier, the Government won the first vote on the Bill by 135 votes to 24, rejecting an amendment by Sinn Fein TD Peadar Toibin.

Mr Toibin’s amendment effectively calls for the deletion of the suicide clause, where termination is permitted to prevent suicide.

Minister of State Lucinda Creighton was among those who voted with the Government on the amendment while her Fine Gael colleagues Peter Matthews, Brian Walsh, Billy Timmins and Terence Flanagan, who have already rejected the legislation, supported the Sinn Fein TD's amendment.

In a vote on the second or introductory debate on the legislation, 13 of Fianna Fail’s 19 TDs voted against the Bill, and a similar number did so on the this vote.

Many of the Independents voted with the Government but Maureen O’Sullivan, Michael Lowry, Michael Healy-Rae and Mattie McGrath voted against.

The vote was taken after more than eight hours of debate on a group of 38 amendments from a number of TDs, dealing with the suicide clause, where termination is permissible to avoid suicide.

This group of amendments is the third of 15 groups to be dealt with. No guillotine is expected to be put on the debate and speculation is growing that the discussion will continue later this afternoon with a provisional midnight deadline a possibility.

Fine Gael TD John Paul Phelan indicated early this morning that he will be supporting the Government’s abortion Bill. There was speculation throughout yesterday that Mr Phelan might vote against it.

Minister for Health James Reilly this morning said Ms Creighton’s arguments were not “compelling” and were “deeply flawed”.

She had accused the Government of “cowering behind” the Supreme Court, but the Minister rejected the assertion. “The decision of the Supreme Court in the X case has never been added to, varied or contradicted by any subsequent decision by the Supreme Court. It is the law and we are bound by it,” he said. “When the statute book is silent on matters of life and death great mischief can occur.”

He agreed that abortion was never a treatment for suicide “but nor is counselling, nor is psychotherapy nor anti-depressants, nor anything else”.

He said the legislation was purposely named “the protection of life” of both the mother and the unborn.

He accepted people on both sides had views that were deeply held.

Dr Reilly said he believed the Bill provided the clarity women required.

Earlier, Minister of State Kathleen Lynch condemned claims that pregnant women in Ireland could not be suicidal and that they were not to be trusted. She said it was “deeply insulting” and offensive.

She said for the most part women did not want to end their pregnancies. It was not something they stepped into lightly.

“Women are to be trusted” she insisted. If women were not to be trusted there would be no female TDs in the Dail.

Ms Lynch said the death of Savita Halappanavar had made people more sensitive to pregnancies in Ireland. She believed had the legislation been in place a process would have kicked in, when Ms Halappanavar asked for a termination.

The Government last night proposed the Dail sit until 5.00am to finish the debate on the abortion legislation, following Opposition demands that the House adjourn and recommence this morning.

In the row that developed on the issue the Opposition called a vote and with its large majority the Government won by 103 to 54. It was the first vote of day connected to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

The debate on the legislation on which 165 amendments have been proposed began shortly after 11 am yesterday.

The Government is had been anxious to finish the legislation overnight.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny confirmed this during the Order of Business yesterday morning when he said he had no difficulty with extending time for the debate. “I am going to get rid of it tonight,” he said.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said there was absolutely no consultation of the Opposition and it reduced the debate to a farce. He said if people wanted to “use the jackboot” against their own members that was one thing but they should not do it to everyone else.

Earlier, Ms Creighton said she cannot be part of enshrining a “flawed” bill on abortion into legislation.

Mayo TD Michelle Mulherin, whose support for the Bill had been in doubt, told the Dail yesterday afternoon she would be voting in favour, while constituency colleague John O'Mahony said in a statement earlier he would also back it.

Mr Whelan, a Kilkenny TD John Paul Whelan said this morning he had received assurances on the Bill from Minister for Health Dr James Reilly and he had consulted widely. “I firmly believe that psychiatrists are better than judges, lawyers or politicians in making judgements on matters of mental health,’’ he added.

Mr Phelan said the system governing the party whip in this country, which was more severe than anywhere else, had not served it well. “I do not think people should be cast aside for giving a true reflection for what they believe,’’ he added.

He said he” deeply, deeply” resented some of the views expressed from members of his own Government in recent months which twisted the provisions of the Fine Gael latform at the last election and those in the programme for government.

The expert group had outlined a number of options, one of which was legislation followed by regulation which the Government chose. “But the idea that it was the only option is just not true,’’ he added.

Two Senators, Fidelma Healy Eames and Paul Bradford – who is Ms Creighton's husband – are expected to vote against the Bill and there are also doubts about which way Galway East Senator Michael Mullins will vote.

The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 was drawn up following the death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital last October after being denied an abortion as she miscarried. Previously doctors acted under guidance from the Irish Medical Council and law based on a Supreme Court ruling from 1992, known as the X case, that allowed abortion if there was a threat to the mother’s life, including suicide. The case was taken by a 14-year-old rape victim who became pregnant and was refused permission to travel for an abortion.

Following the vote, the Bill will be considered by the Seanad and then - provided there are no demands for further amendments - will be brought to President Michael D Higgins to sign off on it and enshrine it into law. The Government expects the law to be enacted before the Dail breaks for summer on July 18th.

Speaking during the debate ahead of the vote, Ms Creighton argued against the legislation, which aims to enshrine a women’s right to an abortion if there is a substantial risk to her life, including allowing terminations to avoid suicide.

She asked Dr Reilly to amend the Bill. “It is actually seeking to legitimise and to entrench and enshrine this error in law, the law of the land, that I consider to be deeply worrying and something I certainly cannot be part of,” she said. The laws “would change the culture of this country and they would change how we deal with vulnerable women”.

She told the Dail she cannot “support a clause which is essentially built on sand”.

She was speaking about the section of the abortion legislation dealing with suicide, on which TDs submitted 38 amendments. Her comments are the clearest signal to date that she will vote against the Bill.

The Dublin South East TD said people spoke of people “cowering behind the party whip” to vote in line with party policy on the issue. “What about people cowering behind the Supreme Court?” she asked.

Hitting out at the “flawed” legislation, she said the underlying cause “repeated as a mantra” was that the State had to legislate for suicide because the Supreme Court had ruled on the X case.

She said the Supreme Court did not order the Oireachtas to legislate. She said the Supreme Court had no capacity or authority to direct the Oireachtas to legislate and there was a “whole litany of cases” on this issue.

Later, Ms Mulherin said she would support the Bill, although she felt the legislation could be drafted in a more prescriptive way to give a fair balance between the legal rights of the mother and the unborn child. She said she had written to Dr Reilly setting out her concerns.

“I am very disappointed that there is very little accommodation of the legitimate concerns expressed by myself and many others, not least in this chamber, in the Government amendments published,’’ she added. I am now faced with either supporting the Bill or being booted out of the party, my party. And I am not going to allow myself to be booted out, so I am supporting this legislation.’’

Mr Flanagan, who has lost the party whip since his opposition to the Bill at second stage, supported Ms Creighton’s amendments to provide a clinical pathway. He added that there would be little or no opposition to the Bill if the section dealing with suicidal ideation were removed. The X case decision was a flawed judgement, he added.

Last night, six pro-choice TDs - Clare Daly, Joan Collins, Richard Boyd Barrett, Mick Wallace, Joe Higgins and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan - said they would oppose the Bill. “I couldn’t, in all conscience, vote for this regressive bill,” Mr Boyd Barrett said. “The bill criminalises women and doctors, does not provide for abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities or rape and is so restrictive in the case of suicide that women and girls will continue to travel abroad.”

A group of TDs, including Mr Boyd Barrett, were the first to propose a series of 10 amendments which were discussed up until 1.30pm.

Mr Boyd Barrett, who said he wanted the Bill to ensure a woman’s life would never again be put at risk, claimed it had become more about the internal politics of Fine Gael.

Mr Higgins said the legislation was “cowardly” as serious issues such as fatal foetal abnormalitiesare “completely ignored”. His amendments aimed to bring the focus on the “health of the pregnant woman”, he said.

Ms Murphy said the Bill was the absolute “bare minimum” and warned there would be “further tragedies”.

There had been a concerted effort to enforce a Catholic viewpoint on the issue which was out of kilter with society, Ms Daly said, while Mr Wallace said there will not be an decrease in the number of women travelling to England for abortions as a result of the Bill.

Speaking against the amendments proposed by the grouping of pro-choice TDs were Independents Mattie McGrath and Michael Healy-Rae. “Unborn life is unborn life and should be regarded as so,” Mr McGrath said. The death of Savita Halappanavar was a case of “neglect” which had been “hijacked”.

Mr Healy-Rae said he was in the Dail “with a heavy heart”.

Mr Timmins said the legislation would not have made one difference to Ms Halappanavar and for members of Government to purport that it would is “disingenuous”.