Pat Leahy: Fine Gael furious with Cabinet colleagues over abortion Bill

Wallace’s Bill triggers public face-off between Fine Gael and Independent Alliance

Fine Gael Ministers publicly shrugged yesterday and affected a let's-get-on-with-it demeanour.

But, privately, they are furious at their Independent colleagues.

With Independent Ministers Shane Ross and Finian McGrath digging in their heels, the Government was unable to reach a collective position on Mick Wallace's private members Bill allowing abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality at its weekly meeting.

So the Cabinet decided that it would not reach a decision.


What happened yesterday was the first public face-off between the two sides of the Government – Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance.

The Alliance got its way, but at considerable cost to internal relations. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was forced to choose between seeing members of his own Cabinet violate the constitutional principle of the Cabinet's collective authority and publicly eating humble pie. He chose the latter. His Attorney General was given an outsize portion of the same dish. And Fine Gael is furious.

“I know that both of them know this Bill will do nothing. They know the AG’s advice is sound. But none of that matters to them,” said one Minister bitterly.


“They haven’t mentally made the transition to Government,” said another. “They still have an opposition mindset.”

Fine Gael found the casualness with which the Independents treated the constitutional (and legal) requirement for collective action, and the cavalier way the Attorney General was treated, appalling.

The Independents think: tough. Get used to the new way of doing politics.

This just makes Fine Gael angrier. The atmosphere around Government is dreadful.

The affair must have been excruciating for the Attorney General, Máire Whelan. She is known to be close to Mr Kenny, and was reappointed to the Government despite being at the centre of several controversies during the last Government’s term of office.

“It must have been one of the most difficult meetings she has ever had to sit through. We all talked about her advice and she just sat there,” said one Cabinet Minister. “Ross said, ‘It’s only one opinion’ – having accepted her advice on CIÉ 10 minutes before.”


Sources throughout Government, both politicians and officials, said that her position was undermined by the stance taken by the Independent Ministers.

A Government spokesman insisted that she was not considering her position, and the Government as a whole wished to move on. But it’s hard to imagine that the question of resignation has not crossed her mind.

The Government, after all, has declined to follow her advice on a matter of fundamental importance.

According to sources at the Cabinet table, Whelan sat stony-faced throughout the discussions on the subject, as Ross and others dismissed her opinion as “just advice”. She did not, sources say, utter a word throughout.

There’s a general understanding on both sides that this will only be a one-off event, said one senior figure. But then he admitted that neither life nor politics tends to work like that. Future breakdowns will only be avoided if the will and the mechanisms are there to ensure it. That is not the situation at present.

“A Government can’t operate like this,” said a Cabinet member. “Either we get our act together or the Government will simply fall apart.”

Insiders admit that the two entities within Government – Fine Gael and the Independents – have not found a way of working together that offers hope of a productive stability in Kenny’s second administration.

It has been a bad week for Kenny, remarked one senior Government source yesterday evening. Forced to climb down on abortion, Joe O’Toole resigned and his most important adviser [Andrew McDowell] announced he’s leaving. “And it’s only Tuesday.” “We’ll get to the recess,” says one pessimistic Cabinet Minister. “But I don’t think the budget is going to be plain sailing.”

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times