By standing up to the Catholic bishops following their latest intervention in the abortion debate, the Taoiseach has accurately read the public mood.
Enda Kenny is aware that while faith is personally important to the majority of Irish people — as, he points out, it is for him — there is no longer a tolerance for the church hierarchy dictating sovereign law.
Describing himself as “a Taoiseach who happens to be Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach”, Mr Kenny declared in the Dáil yesterday that personal or private belief should not be part of lawmaking in a republic.
The message was directed — not only at his Fine Gael backbenchers who fear voting for the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill will conflict with their religious beliefs — but a message to the Catholic Church to stop interfering in democracy.
In early May at a “vigil for life” at Knock Shrine in the Taoiseach’s constituency, Cardinal Sean Brady appeared to overestimate the power the church still has on lawmaking when he said its job was to “convince legislators” to vote against proposed abortion laws.
Cardinal Brady said that while the job of TDs and senators was to legislate, they don’t have the “power over life”.
The Taoiseach immediately responded to these remarks with a carefully-crafted sound- byte that “my book is the Constitution” — a clear reference that he would not be dictated to by an interpretation of the Bible.
“The Constitution is determined by the people, it’s the people’s book,” he said, giving a clear signal that personal or private morality is not part of the law. “We live within the parameters of the Constitution and strictly within the confines of the law. And that’s where the heads of the bill are entirely focused: Within the Constitution and within the law.”
At the time, he even made this distinction in reference to himself.
“I have my own way of speaking to my God,” he said, but “I have a duty and a responsibility as head of Government to legislate in respect of what the people’s wishes are.”
He expressed similar views at a graduation ceremony at Boston College in recent weeks.
Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley boycotted the event — where he traditionally said a prayer for graduates — because of the attendance of the Taoiseach, who he said was “aggressively promoting abortion legislation”.
Mr Kenny thanked God at the start of the speech and told graduates: “Those privileged to lead this, or any other democracy, will do so not as Catholic or Protestant or dissenter, but as men and women guided by and beholden to nothing but the law, the Constitution and above all, the people. All the people — of all faiths and none.”
In what sounded like a reflection of his personal experience, he said: “You will do so without fear or favour because your God, your personal faith, will sustain you.”
Mr Kenny took a similar approach yesterday. Responding to comments the previous day from the Conference of Bishops, he said he was a Taoiseach “for all the people” and his job “is not confined to any sector”: “Therefore I am proud to stand here as a public representative as a Taoiseach, who happens to be Catholic but not a Catholic Taoiseach.”
This was not the sort of watershed moment that took place in Jul 2011, when Mr Kenny strongly criticised the Church’s role in downplaying the rape of children by clergy in his Dáil response to the Cloyne Report.
But it did lay down a clear marker which Kenny knows will find resonance with the public: That the church is no longer the forceful patriarchal organisation it once was, able to “convince” the political establishment to enact what it believes to be morally correct in the interest of the country.
Q & A
Q. On what grounds will terminations be granted?
A. When there is deemed to be a substantial risk to her life, including suicide.
Q. Will a termination be granted on the grounds that a woman is pregnant as a result of rape or incest?
Q. Will a pregnancy not capable of reaching full term be eligible for a termination?
Q. Will a woman be able to seek a termination if she feels it is the least worst outcome to her crisis pregnancy?
Q. Will there be a time limit for terminations?
Q. Is there a “sunset clause” in the bill, automatically putting it up for Oireachtas renewal at a future date?
Q. Will there be an annual review?
A. The HSE will issue yearly reports on numbers of terminations, and state how many women were refused.
Q. How many institutions will be able to perform terminations?
A. 24. A small rise since the bill outline was published.
Q. Does the health minister gain any extra powers?
A. Yes. The minister can bar institutions from performing terminations if they are found not to be operating the law inappropriately.
Q. How many doctors will be involved in decisions?
A. One for a termination due to a medical emergency; two where there is a physical threat to the life of the mother; three in cases of suicidal ideation.
Q. What specialties will the doctors have?
A. To include the woman’s obstetrician and two psychiatrists. The eligible range of psychiatrists is expanded.
Q. What happens if the doctors refuse to grant permission for a termination on suicidal grounds?
A. The woman can appeal to another three doctors.
Q. When does the Government intend the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill to become law?
A. By the time the Oireachtas rises for its summer break at the end of July.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved
More in this section