Labour spies chance to claw back lost ground on social issue

We send them there to legislate and vote on our behalf.

But the last thing Taoiseach Enda Kenny wants to do right now is have his party legislate and vote on abortion.

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore’s party views matters differently — namely that the time has come to legislate and vote and that there is an onus upon parliamentarians to deal with the issue.

The question is whether Fine Gael’s view or Labour’s will prevail, or whether the coalition will opt for a compromise that could effectively shift the responsibility elsewhere.

For both parties, there is a lot riding on the outcome. While it is distasteful to talk of winners and losers on an issue such as this — particularly after the death of Savita Halappanavar — the reality is we are now into an intensely political process with high stakes for both Government parties.

They each want to do the right thing as they see it. But they will also want to keep political damage to an absolute minimum.

Mrs Halappanavar’s death has led to public demands for action, but the issue had been looming for this administration even before it took office.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights found that women’s rights had been breached because there was no procedure by which women could establish if she qualified for a lawful abortion in Ireland.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that abortion was permissible where there was a risk to the life of the mother, including the risk of suicide.

Successive governments — predominantly Fianna Fáil-led coalitions — failed to introduce legislation to clarify instances where a mother’s life was deemed at risk and the criteria under which abortions could be carried out.

Upon taking office, Fine Gael and Labour agreed to establish an expert group to advise on how Ireland could comply with the ECHR judgement.

That expert group has submitted its report, but it is being kept under the political equivalent of lock and key.

Health Minister James Reilly confirmed yesterday that Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore had copies, but that was it. The Attorney General has not been issued with a copy, and ministers will have to wait until the issue comes up at Cabinet on Nov 27, it seems.

By then, one suspects, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste and their advisers will have attempted to outline a solution that will be acceptable to both parties.

But it may not be that easy. TDs from both parties will want input. A solution whereby a Dáil vote is avoided might satisfy staunchly pro-life Fine Gael, which is reluctant to legislate on abortion. But would it satisfy Labour, regarded as pro-choice and committed to legislating for the X case?

The budget will, in all likelihood, ensure that any move to implement a solution won’t happen until next year.

By then, the budget itself may make it even more of an imperative for Labour to insist on legislation. As the junior coalition party, it is getting hammered, particularly on the economic front. Progress on social issues is one of the few areas it can demonstrate its worth. That is why Eamon Gilmore is saying: “Doing nothing is not an option.”

But he has failed to use the word “legislate” in public because he knows the political battle it will be to get legislation across the line.

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