The announcement by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin that he will back the removal of the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution and support unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks is a courageous move.
Given that a significant proportion of his parliamentary party takes a very different view of the issue, his decisive intervention in the debate surprised many people. Some of his own TDs and senators were stunned by Martin’s speech in the Dáil, particularly as he had not given any warning of his intentions.
It represents a sea change in Fianna Fáil's approach to the abortion issue and a hopeful sign that it is now possible to have a mature debate on sensitive moral issues. In the early 1980s, when the proposal to insert the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution first emerged, Fianna Fáil under Charles Haughey had no compunction about ruthlessly exploiting divisions in Fine Gael on the issue.
The decision of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to allow their TDs and senators a free vote this time around was critical. That move influenced the nature and tone of the debate in the Dáil and Seanad, with respectful disagreement rather than bitter point-scoring the dominant feature.
Martin’s initiative certainly represents a political risk. As recently as last autumn an overwhelming majority at the Fianna Fáil ard fheis voted to oppose deleting the Eighth Amendment, so a significant number of party members will have been taken aback by Martin’s stance. The same applies to a number of Fianna Fáil TDs who have already made it clear they do not support his position.
On the other hand, Martin’s decision to back the referendum makes it more difficult for opponents to caricature Fianna Fáil as a party of the past wedded to a traditional view of Irish society that has little appeal to younger voters.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is expected to adopt the same position as Martin when the Government finalises its position, but his crabwise approach to the issue has given the Fianna Fáil leader an opportunity to take the initiative.