Miriam Lord: It’s like the abortion referendum never happened

Mattie McGrath blew a gasket at suggestions he might have been filibustering

Mattie McGrath TD clashes with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, asking the Taoiseach to withdraw a remark that McGrath was "filibustering" the Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy Bill. Video: Oireachtas TV

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A nice moment in the Seanad on Wednesday when Senators congratulated their colleague Frankie Feighan on his marriage to Elaine in Roscommon on Saturday.

It was a small wedding, in St Patrick’s Church in Castlerea. Apparently even local know-all Terry Leyden wasn’t at it – something his fellow Senators found hilarious. The Fianna Fáil veteran must be losing his touch, they reckoned.

The happy couple, with baby daughter Francesca in her lovely red frock, looked the picture of happiness in the snap Frankie was showing off to well-wishers in the corridors.

Much congratulation ensued in the chamber as Senators ambled through their usual mixum-gatherum of topics during the Order of Business. But as the afternoon progressed, you could hardly hear yourself think in the vicinity of the Upper House due to the racket being created by the girding of loins.

For the abortion legislation is due to make landfall there on Thursday.

A whopping seven and a half hours was set aside on Wednesday night to debate the remaining amendments

And once more, all the issues which have already been examined and discussed inside out and upside down in both houses of the Oireachtas and in various committee rooms will be discussed for as long as certain Senators can possibly make it until the Bill finally passes into law.

But there was going to be no rehashing in the Seanad until certain TDs had rehashed themselves to a procedural standstill in the Dáil. They had no intention of going quietly.

After days of repetition and nitpicking and going off on tangents and getting upset and indignant and diverting down side alleys and reintroducing amendments from different angles while reading from a seemingly endless supply of prepared scripts, the core groups of TDs who do not want to see the legislation enacted were determined to keep talking until they ran out of road.

Those deputies vehemently opposed the introduction of abortion before the referendum in June – which saw an overwhelming two-thirds of voters reject their arguments – and they were still doggedly trying to hold back the tide late into Wednesday night.

‘Democratic wishes’

At Leaders’ Questions, a clearly frustrated Richard Boyd-Barrett of People Before Profit was sick and tired of the delays in getting the legislation through, complaining of “obvious attempts by some to frustrate the democratic wishes of the people of this country”.

If the debate dragged on for much longer, he would look for a Friday sitting to complete the task.

He was also mindful that the legislation could be amended in the Seanad. If this happens, the Dáil should sit for extra days to deal with it.

“We need a clear signal that this attempt to frustrate the abortion legislation will not succeed and that the legislation will pass into law before Christmas.”

A woman casts her vote with her daughter in a polling station on the day of the abortion referendum in Dublin on May 25th, 2018. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
A woman casts her vote with her daughter in a polling station on the day of the abortion referendum in Dublin on May 25th, 2018. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

The Taoiseach also wanted proceedings to hurry up. A whopping seven and a half hours was set aside on Wednesday night to debate the remaining amendments. He reckoned that was more than enough time to get the legislation through the Dáil.

“I encourage any Deputies making contributions on this legislation to be pithy and to not repeat arguments they have already made,” he pleaded, bless his innocence. Because that sort of behaviour “is unnecessary and only causes us to take more time than needed”.

Which is the whole reason for it.

Mattie McGrath blew a gasket at the outrageous suggestions he might have been engaging in deliberate time wasting or filibustering. Perish the thought.

People said the same thing when he took an in-depth look at the legislation, examining it minutely and at very great length during the debate on the introduction of new road traffic laws which, among other things, reduced the drink-driving limit.

And they said the same about his comrades-in-arms, Michael and Danny Healy-Rae. Danny is still complaining about the road traffic Bill and how people in Kerry being breathalysed on their way to and from Mass, even though that’s a legislative battle well lost and passed into law.

The Healy-Rae brothers leapt to their feet in solidarity with Mattie and roared blue murder at the disgraceful suggestion that they might be indulging in delaying tactics over the abortion Bill.

“This is not Ballymagash!” cried the Ceann Comhairle, trying to restore order as Danny gesticulated wildly towards Boyd-Barrett. “Please!”

The public gallery looked highly entertained.

They have yet to reach such heights in the Seanad. But it’s about to begin.

Church gate collections

There was an early, pre-debate skirmish during the Order of Business between Fianna Fáil’s Ned O’Sullivan and Independent Ronán Mullen. It started with unusual subject of church-gate collections.

Newly wed Frankie Feighan noted that the Temple Street hospital charity is collecting cashless online payments and he welcomed it as “the way forward”.

He isn’t a fan of the church-gate collections as “they are hitting the 10 per cent and 20 per cent who are going to Mass every Saturday and Sunday”. That’s not fair.

Frankie was sure Senator Mullen would agree “that there can be something very lazy about church-gate collections”.

“Cashless donations should be considered because there is a generation Z now that needs to be addressed as well.”

'Excuse me now, you had your say and you weren’t giving too many rights away there,' huffed Ned, to a light chorus of 'Hear, hear' from colleagues

But Ronán wasn’t that pushed. “Speaking for myself, I have no problem being mugged on a Sunday coming out of Mass by a church-gate collection.” But any organisations, including political parties, “that have shown scant regard for fundamental ideas shared by Christians, among others, about the protection of innocent human life, have some neck to be collecting in such places”.

They should “be told, in a nice way, where to go when they do”.

Ned O’Sullivan wasn’t going to let that one go.

While he had no desire to lock horns with Senator Mullen “especially as we will have adequate opportunity to do that in the coming days”, he couldn’t let his comment go unanswered.

“Senator Mullen posits an opinion that anybody who voted ‘for’ in the recent referendum has no business or entitlement to stand outside a Catholic church taking up a collection,” began Ned, before telling his story.

“During the height of the repeal debate I was accosted by somebody of a similar opinion to the Senator, who said I had no right and it was a disgrace for the likes of me to be outside a church taking up a collection.”

Ronán interjected: “You have every right, you just have a brass neck for doing it.”

“Excuse me now, you had your say and you weren’t giving too many rights away there,” huffed Ned, to a light chorus of “Hear, hear” from colleagues.

Then he suggested to the NUI Senator that were “his kind of thinking to flourish” it wouldn’t be long before he would stop people going into church.

“I want to remind the Senator that two-thirds of people of this country voted ‘Yes’ on the Eighth Amendment and I assure you Senator that they were not all non-Catholics,” bridled Ned, adding “But we will leave that for the moment.”

“Different point. Different point!” cried Ronán. “You’re confusing your issues.”

Then Catherine Noone, who chaired the committee on abortion before the referendum, also got stuck in. Siding with O’Sullivan, she heavily criticised Mullen for his viewpoint.

Stand by for more endless abortion talk from the Seanad.

It’s like the referendum never happened.

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