Sinn Féin outmanoeuvred by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on abortion

Party had to stick with rigid position when committee members proposed radical change

Sinn Féin found itself in an uncomfortable situation this week, as it was outmanoeuvred by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the issue of abortion.

The two largest political parties have votes of conscience on this issue, in acknowledgment of the inability to unify their members.

Sinn Féin, however, has a clear party position – to repeal the Eighth Amendment and legislate for terminations in the cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities and when a mother’s life and health is at risk.

That policy was overwhelmingly accepted at the party’s recent ardfheis, with little dissension. Those that did speak against it sought a vote of conscience on the matter.

The party’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald told the delegates a united position would be adopted by Sinn Féin now and in the forthcoming referendum campaign.

However, it did not foresee members of Fianna Fáil, a party which agreed to resist any attempts to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution, tabling the most liberal proposition.

As the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment reached its conclusion, three Fianna Fáil members – Billy Kelleher, Lisa Chambers and Ned O'Sullivan – said they wanted the committee to recommend terminations be made available up to 12 weeks, without restriction.

This went further than the Sinn Féin position, and much further than anyone had anticipated. Fine Gael TD Hildegarde Naughton, Bernard Durkan and Senator Jerry Buttimer indicated they would support the Fianna Fáil motion, as would several others committee members.

In a bind

Sinn Féin members of the committee found themselves in a bind. Terminations up to 12 weeks went beyond the position agreed at the ardfheis and therefore they could not support it.

The three Sinn Féin members, TDs Louise O'Reilly and Jonathan O'Brien and Senator Paul Gavan, knew this could create serious difficulty for them.

They met the party leadership a number of times ahead of the vote. A sub-group of the ardchomhairle, comprising of McDonald, Pearse Doherty and party secretary Dawn Doyle, met the committee members.

The TDs and Senator sought permission to support the Fianna Fáil motion. At worst, they asked to abstain on the proposal. Discussions continued until Wednesday morning when it was agreed the party could abstain.

However, the difficulties for Sinn Féin remain.

Pro-choice campaign

If the Government agrees to implement the Oireachtas committee’s recommendations, this will stretch beyond the Sinn Féin position and it may be unable to fully attach itself to the pro-choice campaign.

The Irish Times understands the party will move to address the gap at an ardfheis next year. It will not be discussed at the special ardfheis in February, when the party will be focused on electing its new leader.

An ardfheis is expected to follow soon after, where Sinn Féin will seek support for a new position on abortion.

This is not without its difficulties. Sinn Féin, like every party, is divided on this matter. Its rural supporters tend to oppose change. However, there is an acknowledgment that many Sinn Féin votes tend to be young, urban and pro-choice.

O’Reilly, who is the party’s health spokeswoman, insisted its members were galvanised and ready to fight the referendum campaign. “Make no mistake, Sinn Féin will go out and fight to remove article 40.3.3 of the Constitution and we are confident that will be a fight we can win.”