Miriam Lord: The day 32 TDs voted against democracy

Bill allowing referendum passes but significant minority don’t trust themselves

Independent TD Danny Healy-Rae said it was his duty as an elected member of the House to speak for unborn babies who had a right to continue their journey into this world. Video: Oireachtas

 

Dear Democracy,

So sorry. Honestly, it’s not you.

It’s us.

It just isn’t working for us right now.

We have the utmost respect for you. It is why we put ourselves up for election to Dáil Éireann in the first place.

We trust the people. We would dearly love to give the people the opportunity to vote on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment on abortion.

There is nothing we would like to do more.

We know it’s been 35 years since the Irish public voted to insert a clause into the Constitution giving the unborn, from conception, the same right to life as the pregnant woman. We understand that a substantial body of public opinion favours holding a referendum on this issue.

As Éamon de Valera once said, the Constitution is the people’s document.

But not right now.

We are totally fine with The People. The thing is, we just don’t trust ourselves.

If we allow the people to exercise their voting choices in a referendum, they might choose a course forcing us to legislate. Then we might end up voting for legislation we implacably oppose because we don’t trust ourselves to stick to our publicly enunciated and deeply held principles.

Because we are TDs.

And we just can’t be trusted.

So if you don’t mind, we have chosen not to allow the electorate a choice.

Hope you understand. Hope the people don’t remember.

Because we will very definitely need them to exercise their choice when we’re looking to retain our seats in the near future.

Dearest Democracy, this is not the end of us. We still have a future together.

Just not now.

I hope we can meet up again at the next election. We will be trusting ourselves again by then.

Occasionally yours,

The Fianna Fail 21, the Fine Gael Two, the Sinn Féin One, the Independent Eight . . .

Minister for Health Simon Harris: made remarks about mothers who travelled abroad to seek a termination when their much-wanted babies were diagnosed with conditions incompatible with life. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Minister for Health Simon Harris: made remarks about mothers who travelled abroad to seek a termination when their much-wanted babies were diagnosed with conditions incompatible with life. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Finally.

After years and years of talk on a subject which has convulsed Irish society for decades, the Dáil voted on Wednesday to allow a referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.

One hundred and ten TDs from all sides of the House voted in favour. Thirty-two of them voted against. A number were missing in action, but despite this it was one of the highest turnouts for a vote since the Government was formed.

A high proportion of TDs are opposed to abortion in any circumstances and do not favour any change to the current constitutional position. Others favour very minimal change in the law. But of that group, a sizeable number accept that the electorate should be allowed to have its voice heard on this highly contentious and emotive issue.

And so, just two Fine Gael TDs voted not to offer the public a voice. They will argue their case, should the amendment be repealed, in the Dáil deliberations to follow.

The all-male cohort of Independents who have consistently opposed any change, made up primarily of the rural group, surprised nobody when they voted against giving the electorate a choice. Ditto the sole Sinn Féin member who also voted against a referendum.

But the most interesting outcome of the vote came from the Fianna Fáil ranks. Micheál Martin has allowed his TDs a free vote on abortion, understanding that there are sincere and deeply held views on both sides in his parliamentary party. However, he also made strong arguments in favour of allowing the public its chance to have a say on the question, regardless of what the politicians might want to see happen.

On Wednesday, the party leader saw his deputies almost evenly split down the middle on the vote to have a vote.

Afterwards, a few Fianna Fáil TDs – possessing at least two years’ experience in the Dáil – claimed to have misunderstood the question and said it was never their intention to deny the public a vote.

One Independent said he voted against holding a referendum because he is against abortion. When we asked about those voters who might hold a different view and would like to exercise their vote, he said the people in his west of Ireland constituency are against repealing the amendment and he was acting upon their wishes.

Second day

The second day of debate on abortion saw Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats demanding that Danny Healy-Rae, apologise for remarks he made in the House the previous night.

While the debate had been respectful so far, she said “I believe a line was crossed last night and there is great hurt at some of the comments that were made, possibly unintentionally. Could I ask that perhaps a minute is afforded to Deputy Danny Healy-Rae to withdraw some of the very hurtful comments that were made about people who have terminated a pregnancy due to fatal foetal abnormalities, and apologise for the hurt caused?”

Danny wasn’t really listening as he was in conversation with his brother Michael on one side, and Mattie McGrath on the other. When his name was mentioned, they all stopped talking. Danny looked at Mattie, who cocked a thumb in Murphy’s direction and said something. The Kerry TD looked blankly at her and said nothing.

What had offended Murphy and many others were his remarks about mothers who travelled abroad to seek a termination when their much-wanted babies were diagnosed with conditions incompatible with life. In particular, he referred to Minister for Health Simon Harris’s remarks about them having to come home “with their loved one in the boot of a car”.

Healy-Rae said it was his duty to speak for the unborn babies.

“I don’t know what you meant, Minister, but I surely do know that the little dead baby did not feel very loved and it would make not a difference whether the baby was in the boot of the car in London or the north of Ireland or the south of Ireland,’’ he declared.

“The unborn baby was dead at that stage anyway.’’

Danny was “very hurt” by what the Minister said.

“I believe only God decides when a life should end.’’

“Women should be given support in pregnancy if they need it and if they can’t manage to rear their babies there are couples out there who would only love to adopt,” he continued.

Healy-Rae argued if the amendment is repealed, unborn babies won’t stand a chance. “What about all the contraceptive methods, the morning-after pills . . . I mean, the last thing we should be talking about is getting rid of the little unborn baby.’’

Soon after Catherine Murphy asked for an apology, he rose to speak.

He talked about the availability of broadband in Kerry.

There was no apology.

Abortion: The Facts

Read now