Stephen Collins: It has not been a great week for politics or the media
Politicians and journalists have managed to undermine people’s confidence in their integrity
Tánaiste Simon Coveney: If he doesn’t trust his colleagues in the Dáil not to introduce an even more liberal abortion regime than they are currently committed to, why should the public trust them?
Politicians and journalists have something in common this week. Serious questions have been raised about whether either group can ever be trusted. The contortions of Tánaiste Simon Coveney over abortion has sent a clear signal to the public that he doesn’t trust elected politicians to deal with the issue in the future. Simultaneously, the treatment of attorney general Séamus Woulfe has shown that elements of the media have no compunction about breaching fundamental principles of trust.
In both cases convoluted justifications can be offered, but the bottom line is that the episodes will do nothing to improve public confidence in professions which, to put it at its mildest, are not always held in the highest esteem.
Coveney’s colleagues in Fine Gael are divided over whether his botched attempt to limit the capacity of any future Dáil to change the proposed abortion legislation stemmed from naivety or cynicism.
The issue has clearly posed a moral dilemma for Coveney ever since the Government strategy on the issue began to emerge. While he was always prepared to support the holding of a referendum, he made no secret of his reluctance to support a law allowing abortion on request up to 12 weeks.
Coveney has certainly given a weapon to those campaigning against the repeal of the Eighth Amendment
At the beginning of the week he surprised people by announcing he was prepared to support it, but followed that up less than 24 hours later by suggesting there should be a requirement for a two-thirds majority in the Dáil for any future changes in the law.
At the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, Ministers agreed, on the advice of Woulfe, that this proposal was unconstitutional, and could not be accepted.
Later in the day it was very publicly shot down in the Dáil by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who said he had been advised by the attorney general that “it would be contrary to article 15 of the Constitution, and therefore could not be included in this legislation, and therefore will not be”.
In case there was any doubt, he added: “There will not be a requirement that any change to primary legislation would require a two-thirds majority as doing so would require an amendment to the Constitution itself, and it is not proposed to do that.”
The question is why did Coveney not know that or at least make some effort to find out before publicly calling for something to be done that is unconstitutional?
The innocent explanation is that he was trying so hard to reconcile his desire not to destabilise the Government with his conscientious objections to unrestricted abortion that he grasped at a straw.
The other explanation, favoured by some in his party, is that he is trying to have it both ways, retaining his key role in Government while sending a signal to the electorate that he has reservations about the way the abortion issue is being handled.
“I would have far more respect for him if he came out and simply said he could not vote for the legislation,” said one Fine Gael TD. “We are having a free vote, and it will be carried one way or another, but he was not prepared to accept the consequences of going against his Cabinet colleagues.”
Whatever his motivation, Coveney has certainly given a weapon to those campaigning against the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. If he doesn’t trust his colleagues in the Dáil not to introduce an even more liberal abortion regime than they are currently committed to, why should the public trust them?
Another big issue in the Dáil this week arose from media coverage of remarks by Woulfe at a lunch hosted by the Association of European Journalists (AEJ) last Friday.
When the issue was raised in the Dáil there was uproarious laughter when the Taoiseach tried to explain that the comments were made at a private function
As one of the people present at the event I have no doubt that Woulfe was treated shabbily, to put it as its mildest. As is normal at AEJ events, it was announced at the beginning that Woulfe’s speech was on the record, but that a question-and-answer session that followed would be covered by Chatham House rules. These mean that anything said is for background information only, and cannot be quoted.
In the course of an informative and entertaining speech Woulfe said the controversial Judicial Appointments Bill had become a dog’s dinner because of a range of contradictory and even unconstitutional amendments which had been passed at Committee Stage.
His colourful language may have been politically unwise, but it provided a legitimate news story for the journalists present as it was clearly on the record. However, during the off-the-record question-and-answer session that followed he made brief comments about a current Supreme Court case.
Those comments were not used by any of the journalists present, but were subsequently published. When the issue was raised in the Dáil there was uproarious laughter when the Taoiseach tried to explain that the comments were made at a private function, and that Chatham House rules applied.
That laughter was a good indication of what most TDs think about the trustworthiness of journalists. The betrayal of trust displayed towards Woulfe will encourage the public to think likewise, and will undoubtedly make politicians and others even more careful about what they say to journalists in the future.