‘There is an openness’ – Fianna Fáil in flux on abortion

Support for repeal is 50/50 but the real split is over the proposed 12-week window

Fianna Fáil finance spokesperson Michael McGrath with party leader Micheál Martin: McGrath has said he believed the proposal made by the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment was a step too far. File photograph: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Fianna Fáil finance spokesperson Michael McGrath with party leader Micheál Martin: McGrath has said he believed the proposal made by the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment was a step too far. File photograph: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

 

Moral conservatism has always seemed intrinsic to Fianna Fáíl. It’s not just 1983 and the Eighth Amendment. It’s all the other referendums since then. It’s the way Micheál Martin was rebuffed, only four years ago, by his own parliamentarians during the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. It was the 70 per cent who voted to retain the Eighth Amendment in a debate on the margins of its ardfheis last autumn.

Though a liberal wing has emerged among its TDs and senators in recent years, the image has persisted for 35 years. That partly explains the volcanic reaction among colleagues to Martin’s volte-face on the Eighth Amendment last week.

Is Martin an outlier in Fianna Fáil, his views on this issue out of kilter with the party’s 20,000 members?

(Martin declared his support for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which is a de facto ban on abortion in Ireland. He also supported the Oireachtas committee recommendation of abortion without restriction for up to 12 weeks.)

For some, a Fianna Fáil leader accepting abortion was equivalent to Nigel Farage telling Ukip he was renouncing Brexit. Is Martin an outlier in Fianna Fáil, his views on this issue out of kilter with the party’s 20,000 members?

The Fianna Fáil leader has said the Irish people are ahead of his party on abortion. The evidence also suggests its own “grassroots” are ahead of its TDs and Senators. Only 10 of the 40 TDs who have declared a position support repeal. Yet 49 per cent – close to half – of party supporters are in favour of change, according to The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll this week. That suggests some disconnect between the politicians and their own core supporters.

This week, The Irish Times spoke to dozens of Fianna Fáil councillors and members to get some sense of where the party’s grassroots members stand on this issue. We focused on four counties – Westmeath, Mayo, Cork and Limerick – as well as speaking to councillors in Dublin.

The picture that emerged is a complex one, showing a party that is in flux over abortion.

Fury

There was a marked contrast in reaction. Compared with the fury of some TDs and Senators, the reaction was muted among the wider membership. Indeed, many, including many who strongly opposed

Martin’s views, commended his moral courage. A few expressed disappointment.

Cllr Kevin Sheehan: “When is it right to take the life of an unborn baby? That question remains in my head unanswered.” Photograph: Harry McGee
Cllr Kevin Sheehan: “When is it right to take the life of an unborn baby? That question remains in my head unanswered.” Photograph: Harry McGee

Only one, Cllr Kevin Sheehy, a councillor for over 30 years in Limerick, expressed shock and that was mainly to do with the timing. “I would like to see Micheál Martin being taoiseach some day. I am not out to stab him in the back but he should have given a bit more thought to the timing of the statement.

“When is it right to take the life of an unborn baby? That question remains in my head unanswered.”

It’s important not to overstate the change. A majority of those to whom we spoke would be opposed to radical change. The 12-week term was mentioned by the vast majority as being a step too far.

But there was a significant minority who openly supported Martin’s position, including allowing abortion up to 12 weeks. They tended to be younger members, and also virtually every woman we spoke to, but there were exceptions.

When you put it to James Collins, a 40-something councillor and publican in Dooradoyle, Limerick, that there is a perception the party is rural, conservative and older, he replies. “Well, I am not. That’s not me and many like me.

James Collins: “The face of Fianna Fáil is changing, as society is changing.” Photograph Harry McGee
James Collins: “The face of Fianna Fáil is changing, as society is changing.” Photograph Harry McGee

“Look at Ógra [the youth wing]. It has higher membership than any other party. It has renewed itself. The face of Fianna Fáil is changing, as society is changing.”

Collins supports a repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and believes that once members read up on the issue they will realise that the current regime is “not fit for purpose”.

‘No doubts’

Róisín Redmond, a 22-year-old law student from Blarney, Co Cork, is Munster organiser of Ógra and says the youth wing is divided 50/50 on the issue. Despite those divisions, the debate been respectful, she says. Ógra did agree at a conference that a referendum should be held but, given the divergent views among its members, has not recommended any option.

For her part, Redmond has no doubts. She was struck by the “brilliance” of Martin’s speech. “We are democratic party and we live in a democracy. A free vote means freedom of conscience,” she says. That viewpoint is widely accepted among the group.

“I was very happy with the decision he came to. I would agree with that. The findings of the committee that came back were ones I very much agreed with.”

Law student Róisín Redmond: “A free vote means freedom of conscience”. Photograph: Harry McGee
Law student Róisín Redmond: “A free vote means freedom of conscience”. Photograph: Harry McGee

Rathfarnham councillor Emma Murphy (32) was not born at the time of the the 1983 referendum. “It’s time the Constitution reflected the reality of society . . . Females should be in control of their own bodies,” she says.

Another young Cork councillor, Nicholas O’Keeffe (31), also strongly supports repeal and believes party members’ approach is evolving. “There is an openness to engage,” he says.

So there is a plurality of views but, true to Collins’s assessment, there are as many younger members who oppose repeal. And for those we spoke to who have reservations, there was a strong widespread view the proposal to introduce unfettered access to abortion for 12 weeks would present huge difficulties.

Among the women we spoke to, almost all back Martin’s views

Cllr Michael Smyth (44) is a solicitor based in Swinford, Co Mayo. “I think people may be open to repeal in general around fatal foetal abnormality and rape. I would be pro-life. However, I am open to another level. I personally would not be able to accept a remit of 12 weeks.”

John Shaw (36) is a councillor based in Raharney, Co Westmeath and until recently a county hurler. “I would consider myself as pro-life as possible. I would favour repeal and circumstances where women are treated more humanely. But 12 weeks goes too far for me.”

In Blackpool, Cork, Cllr Kenneth O’Flynn (38) holds the opposite view to the party leader’s.

“I believe that life begins at the time of conception. Everything after that is superfluous. The planned wording with 12 weeks goes far further that anyone envisaged. That is a big problem,” he says.

Among the women we spoke to, almost all back Martin’s views. Deirdre O’Brien from Fermoy is in her 40s and a sister of the TD Kevin O’Keeffe. He strongly opposes repeal; she is in favour of repeal plus the 12-week access to termination.

“The responsibility does fall back on women. If you tease it out with people, it’s not a huge amount of time, in fact soon enough after a women realises she is pregnant,” she says. “That period will give somebody time to assess and if you do give people choices,” she says.

Lifelong Fianna Fáil members Tríona O’Dea (37) from Croome in Limerick and Helen Ryan, in her 40s, from Pallasgreen, also support Martin’s position and say they believe the choice should be left to the woman. “You cannot put yourself in to somebody else’s shoes in this situation. What you think might not be their choice and the have a right to that choice,” says Ryan.

For her part, O’Dea says: “I have always been a strong feminist. To not allow the referendum pass is taking a woman’s rights out of her hands and saying they are irrelevant.”

Remarkable

As against those views, much is made of the Fianna Fáil ardfheis vote in October 2017 against repeal. This was a recurrent theme for some councillors in Westmeath and Mayo. “I was surprised at the speech because the ardfheis very strongly opposed what is being proposed,” says veteran Castlebar councillor Al McDonnell.

On the other hand, his fellow Co Mayo councillor John Caulfield, who has anti-abortion views and is of the same generation, cast doubts on the ardfheis vote, which he says took place in a side-room packed with interested parties, namely anti-abortion activists.

The one-time major issue of the Eighth Amendment   has become a more minor consideration, supplanted now by the 12-week issue

“I’m coming from a pro-life perspective. Let’s call a spade a spade. Few of our younger members were in the room. A lot of aged people were there. It’s an annual outing for them. My own view is that the divide in the party is 50/50, the same as it is nationally.”

Inherent in this is a remarkable reality. The one-time major issue of the Eighth Amendment – whose repeal was anathema for three decades within Fianna Fáil – has become a more minor consideration, supplanted now by the 12-week issue.

Even among some councillors and members who classify themselves as instinctively pro-life, some have reserved judgment until they have had a chance to read and reflect on the information.

Cllr Ken Glynn (46) from Mullingar expresses it well. “I always consider myself pro-life but I want to be open and fair. As a politician you like to get a fair hearing and that should be extended to others. I will sit down with my wife and daughter and discuss it as a family. I will listen to what they say.”

Lucan-based Cllr Ed O’Brien (41) was impressed by Martin’s “brave” speech but has yet to make up his own mind and won’t do so until he has accessed all the information.

In Finglas, Cllr Paul McAuliffe says: “I was expecting a queue of people giving out but there was maybe three people who complained.”

In his 30s, he says his own views have evolved. “I was somebody who was against repealing the Eighth. Over Christmas I looked at the committee debates on TV and I have morphed to being in favour of repeal. For me, the availability of the abortion pill has moved the debate on. How do you deal with the reality of that?”

Collins in Limerick makes a similar argument: “It’s unacceptable that we are forcing women to source pills on the internet . . . As a society we can come up with laws that can deal with these cases rather than force people in vulnerable situations online or abroad.”

There is no doubt that what seemed like entrenched positions within Fianna Fáil have evolved.

Though Fianna Fáil voters are still the most likely to oppose the 12-week term (38 per cent oppose it, as against 26 per cent opposition from Fine Gael voters, according to the Ipsos MRBI poll), for many in the party “pro-life” is a more elastic term than it was 10 years ago.

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