Fianna Fáil TDs were left stunned on Thursday evening by an unexpected declaration by party leader Micheál Martin that he would vote for the proposal to legalise abortion on request in the early months of pregnancy.
In a dramatic intervention in the debate on changing Ireland’s abortion laws, the Fianna Fáil leader on Thursday pledged to support the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and the promised legislation to introduce abortion on request in the first three months of pregnancy and in specific circumstances thereafter.
Mr Martin’s announcement – he did not give his TDs any advance notice – earned him plaudits from repeal campaigners but stunned members of his party.
Fianna Fáil TDs praised Mr Martin publicly for his leadership, but privately some were horrified at his speech. One TD predicted he would be “lynched, killed” by his parliamentary party while another said there would be “war” but that it would ease off after a few days.
Others said that Mr Martin had taken a very brave step “politically and personally”.
Micheál has always said this is a matter for individuals and he has an individual view. He is entitled to express that
Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte, who supports retaining the Eighth Amendment but amending it for abortion in certain circumstances, said Mr Martin had shown remarkable leadership.
The party's health spokesman Billy Kelleher denied this would divide the party or cause ructions.
“Micheál has always said this is a matter for individuals and he has an individual view. He is entitled to express that. He has shown exceptional leadership.”
The party's housing spokesman Barry Cowen said nobody should bear a grudge against Mr Martin for expressing his view.
“He gave each party member a right to express their own opinion and this is his view.”
Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív, who does not support the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, said he would not comment on Mr Martin's speech but said each individual within the party is entitled to their position.
Roscommon-Galway TD Eugene Murphy said he was "very impressed" by Mr Martin's passionate speech but did not 100 per cent agree with him.
One Fianna Fáil TD privately said Mr Martin’s speech had made them reconsider their position.
Speaking after the debate, Mr Martin said he had read the report of the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment over the Christmas period and had reflected very carefully on its findings.
By supporting the recommendations of the rigged committee on the Eighth Amendment, he is supporting the abortion of healthy babies for no other reason that their existence is inconvenient
He acknowledged that not everyone will agree with his view but said he believed this is the right thing to do, claiming Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution had failed.
Mr Martin was previously a supporter of the constitutional ban on abortion and has often described himself as coming from a “pro-life” perspective.
Mr Martin’s speech came a day after the majority of the Fianna Fáil TDs expressed their opposition to the Oireachtas committee recommendations at a parliamentary party meeting. Mr Martin gave no indication at the meeting that he would come out in favour of the proposals yesterday.
According to the latest numbers on The Irish Times referendum tracker, 22 Fianna Fáil TDs have said they are against repeal, while seven have said they are in favour, with 15 undecided.
A spokeswoman for the Abortion Rights Campaign praised Mr Martin and other TDs who supported the abortion proposals in the Dáil over the course of the two-day debate.
But Niamh Uí Bhriain, spokeswoman for the Life Institute, sharply criticised the Fianna Fáil leader's position.
“By supporting the recommendations of the rigged committee on the Eighth Amendment, he is supporting the abortion of healthy babies for no other reason that their existence is inconvenient. This is unconscionable, extremist and mistaken,” she said.
The debate on the Oireachtas committee recommendations will continue next week. It is understood Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will not participate and will not give his views until the wording of the referendum is decided by the Government.