Tánaiste’s declaration adds a new dynamic to abortion debate

Analysis: Simon Coveney’s intervention has focused attention on the unborn

Simon Coveney will campaign for repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion, but will probably seek to amend the proposed legislation which would follow the referendum. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Simon Coveney will campaign for repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion, but will probably seek to amend the proposed legislation which would follow the referendum. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Simon Coveney’s declaration that he is in favour of repeal of the Eighth Amendment but against abortion on request up to 12 weeks is a significant intervention in the referendum debate.

While the Tánaiste spoke forcefully on and will campaign for repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion, his indication that he would seek to amend the proposed legislation which would follow the referendum – if it is passed – caught TDs by surprise and worried some pro-repeal ministers. It annoyed some of them, too.

“Only Leo isn’t rattled,” said one pro-repeal minister.

Presumably the Taoiseach knew what was coming. Though so did some TDs opposed to the 12 weeks proposal.

For those who weren’t forewarned, Coveney’s interview on RTÉ caught the attention of TDs across the Dáil – significantly represented in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – who are in favour of repeal but nervous about legalising the vast majority of abortions under the 12 weeks rule. There is another group of TDs of course who are opposed to repeal in the first place.

Many repealers in Government were dismayed; anti-repeal campaigners outside Leinster House said it just showed you can’t trust politicians if the constitutional ban is removed. “Typical Simon,” said one Cabinet colleague. “It’ll please nobody.”

Coveney’s alternative to the 12 weeks proposal is not, on the evidence of his interview, anything like fully thought out. He is likely, at least, to face calls to spell out in detail how rape victims would be catered for if abortion on request is not legalised.

Teased out

Coveney can say with some justification that this is a matter to be teased out when the legislation is being drawn up if the referendum does pass. That, after all, is the role of parliament. But he has undoubtedly added an element of uncertainty to the question. Who can say with any certainty what the final abortion law will look like?

Previously the Government was clear that if the referendum passed, it would legislate on the basis of the Oireachtas committee’s report. That meant the referendum was effectively a vote on the legislation, including the 12 week proposal which will be drawn up by the Government in advance. It would have been very hard for the Dáil to amend or reject something that had been endorsed by the people.

But now the deputy head of the Government is saying that the legislation is up for the normal parliamentary process of change, refinement and redirection. Remember, this is a Government without a majority, and the two largest parties have promised free votes.

Legally, it was always true that the legislation was a matter for the Dáil; Coveney has just made it politically true as well. It will bring a renewed focus on the wishes and views of TDs, and the disposition of opinions within the Dáil.

Around Leinster House in the aftermath of Coveney’s interview on Thursday, there was a strong feeling among some TDs that passing the legislation – but not the referendum – just became more difficult.

‘Middle ground’

The Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, along with some of the organisations campaigning for repeal, have laboured successfully to position the Government’s proposals as the “middle ground”. Coveney’s intervention has just made the occupation of that position more difficult, or at least contested.

But perhaps the real significance of Coveney’s intervention is not on the details but on the overarching theme of the debate. The main thrust of the debate so far has been the rights and needs and lives of women. Though he also emphasised the needs of women, Coveney is the first senior politician to make a priority of the position of the unborn as well.

How many others follow his lead, or how influential that is, will only play out in the weeks and months ahead. But for now, suddenly, Coveney has introduced a new dynamic to this long campaign.

No doubt there will be other twists ahead.

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