Coveney’s very public agonising on abortion issue helps both sides

Tánaiste’s vacillations reflect much middle-ground opinion on referendum

Many politicians are struggling with their consciences to come to a settled position on abortion. None is doing it quite so publicly as the second most senior member of the Government.

Simon Coveney’s U-turn earlier this week on the Government’s proposal to legislate for abortion on request up to 12 weeks if the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment is passed caught his colleagues by surprise. But most of them – the majority back repeal, anyway – were not displeased. At least the Tánaiste was now on board.

But they thought his rapid addendum to that position in Tuesday’s newspapers – to the effect that he would seek a two-thirds majority in the Dáil for any future changes to abortion legislation – was ridiculous.

If the Taoiseach’s smackdown of Coveney in the Dáil chamber – he curtly ruled it out, pointing out its obvious unconstitutionality – demonstrated impatience, the Taoiseach was not the only member of his party to feel it.


The most common comment on Coveney’s gyrations among Fine Gaelers around Leinster House on Tuesday was: “What the hell is he up to?” Many used less parliamentary language.

Coveney accepted the rebuke. He had no choice. His spokesman said the “legislative lock” was discussed by the Cabinet but would require a constitutional amendment which is “not possible in the timeframe”.

The rejection of his idea “in no way alters the Tánaiste’s full support for the heads being brought forward by Minister Harris”, the statement concluded.

And so on Tuesday night the Cabinet duly adopted the heads of the bill. The decision to approve Simon Harris’s legislation (which of course cannot be tabled unless the constitutional referendum is passed), along with the passing of the referendum Bill by the Seanad, and the naming of the date for the vote by the Government, mark the end to this parliamentary phase of the abortion debate.

Significant role

Coveney has played a significant role at the beginning and the end of this phase.

In early February, following the Taoiseach’s formal announcement of the referendum and the legislation to follow, Coveney derailed the middle ground momentum of the Government’s repeal effort by coming out against the 12 weeks proposal.

“In my view the majority of people in Ireland that I’ve spoken to recognise that there needs to be constitutional change in this area,” he told Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ radio.

“But they are also concerned that the State needs to provide protection for the unborn through pregnancy, obviously secondary to the health and welfare of the woman. I think I reflect that middle ground position which is where many, many people are today.”

Asked specifically about abortion pills, he acknowledged this was an important part of the debate, that women were taking abortion pills with no medical supervision.

“But,” he said, “there is a counter argument: the State has an obligation to protect the unborn child.”

Before Coveney’s intervention, the Government was making a good pitch to occupy the crucial middle ground; afterwards, that position became a lot more contested, not least because the deputy prime minister was doing so.

His retreat from that position (specifically grounded in the availability of abortion pills) will help clear the way for the Government to seek to occupy that middle ground again.

So it helps the repeal cause, there’s no doubt about that. But quixotically, it also helps the retain side make one of its key arguments – that you cannot trust that politicians will do what they say they will do.

In fairness to Coveney, his vacillations on the matter reflect much middle-ground opinion on the issue. Extensive polling suggests one thing above all – while there is a strong majority for repeal, there is a blocking minority who are sufficiently uneasy or uncertain about the Government’s proposals to mean the outcome of the referendum is not a foregone conclusion.

Ireland is leaning yes, but it has not yet decided.

Like Coveney, many of those voters agree with elements of both sides’ arguments – they think the current law is way too restrictive, but they also think unborn children should have some rights and protections.

For all that he is being currently derided by his friends and his enemies, the smart campaigners on either side will try to learn from the agonising of Simon Coveney.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times