Election plans set to take a back seat to referendum debate

The electoral damage the Eighth Amendment referendum could cause Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil means a 2018 general election is far less likely than it seems, writes Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

Pro-choice campaigners dressed as handmaids pass pro-life supporters outside Leinster House yesterday. Picture: Gareth Chaney

The IMF loans have been repaid.

The Government finally has a young and energetic leader it believes in.

A giveaway budget in all but name is just around the corner.

And, if the most recent opinion poll is to be believed, Fine Gael has opened a clear gap on Fianna Fáil.

In normal political circumstances, such a set of events would lead to the inevitable conclusion a general election is set to be called within months to allow politicians to do what they do best — cynically take advantage of an opportunity.

Only, as anyone within earshot of the divisive grand-standing in committee room two of Leinster House yesterday will know all too well, the coming months are not normal political circumstances.

In June or July next year, the public will be asked to vote on whether to retain, repeal or amend the Eighth Amendment, arguably the most controversial and emotive issue on this island which has gone to the heart of social, religious and political divide since the early 1980s, with the work on the wording of the referendum beginning in earnest at a cross-party committee yesterday.

The influence this increasingly prominent issue will have on any key youth, elderly and rural voter bases crucial to winning the next election is not a problem for the likes of Sinn Féin, Labour, Solidarity-People Before Profit, the Social Democrats and the Greens, who have clearly outlined their support for the law change. However, for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the
scenario could not be more different.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin’s parties are acutely vulnerable and utterly vague on where they stand when it comes to the future of the Eighth Amendment.

And this alone is the single biggest hurdle standing in the way of a 2018 election race.

Rosa (For Reproductive Rights Against Opression, Sexism & Austerity) campaigners dressed as Handmaids during a lobby for Pro Choice at Leinster House, Dublin following the start of The Oireachtas Committee on the 8th Ammendment Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

The situation is most pronounced for Fine Gael which, since being caught off-guard by the wide-reaching recommendations of the citizens’ assembly in April, has been at a loss as to how to respond.

While the party has noticeably been attempting to win over younger voters through the slick PR operation surrounding Mr Varadkar since his election as Taoiseach last June, it is still not speaking the same language to those sought-after younger voters.

Asked during a lengthy press conference at the end of the party’s pre-Dáil think-in last week if they supported the recommendation for free, unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, Mr Varadkar along with Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and the party’s deputy leader Simon Coveney, said they were unsure the public would support such a view, a situation that will hardly be music to the ears of younger voters Fine Gael will need if it decides to call an election in 2018.

To do nothing after going through the process of the citizens’ assembly and the cross-party committee on the Eighth Amendment is not, however, an option, with some loosening of Ireland’s abortion restrictions inevitable.

And this too will put a strain on the party’s core right-of-centre base, particularly among rural voters, an issue that a number of TDs at the party’s think-in last week privately suggested could be the tipping point in some barely-won constituencies last year.

While they were less concerned about the stand-off at their own pre-Dáil think-in earlier this week, the same problems are true for Fianna Fáil, whose deliberately vague stock response that it is not about removing the Eighth Amendment but what it will be replaced with is unlikely to hold up to scrutiny in the months to come.

And, although both parties’ leaders will allow a free vote among TDs and senators on the issue in order to potentially appease both sides, the inevitable infighting caused by Yes and No campaign divisions from within their own ranks will hardly give the healthy and coherent image a party needs going into any election race.

The already announced schedule for the Eighth Amendment referendum next June or July is also problematic, as it leaves little room for manoeuvre on the timing of a potential 2018 election.

To hold it before the referendum is decided would guarantee the election would become a single issue debate on an issue both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are vulnerable on, and would effectively see both parties hand rivals an all too obvious open goal in which to take advantage.

osa (For Reproductive Rights Against Opression, Sexism & Austerity) campaigners dressed as Handmaids during a lobby for Pro Choice at Leinster House, Dublin following the start of The Oireachtas Committee on the 8th Ammendment Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

The likely emotive nature of any referendum, and the potential for its wording to be something of a fudge that does not entirely please any side, would also suggest that a cooling off period will be required before Government considers returning to the ballot box in order to avoid any fallout, effectively ruling out any opportunity for a summer election next year.

And with next year’s budget coming just weeks before a long-planned day of referendums in November 2018, the reality is that unless those votes are postponed, there is little to no space for Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil to seek an election next year they can be sure will not backfire on them.

Since its election 17 months ago, the current minority Government has been careful to pass off responsibility for any decision on the future of the Eighth Amendment under the guise of independent analysis being required.

First it was the citizens’ assembly which was asked to make a decision politicians are elected to make. Then, when the recommendations went too far, it was the cross-party committee which began its public deliberations yesterday.

And when that wide-ranging group provides its own recommendations before Christmas, responsibility will then fall on the Dáil and Seanad to decide on the wording for what will inevitably be a divisive and potentially damaging referendum.

However, despite the careful side-stepping and passing the buck dressed up as seeking independent views, in the public’s mind at least, responsibility for the referendum will ultimately fall at the feet of those in power — both formally and behind the scenes.

Should that referendum, as is widely expected, result in a middle-ground wording that pleases no one, the short-term electoral fallout for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil should not be under-estimated.

And regardless of budget giveaways, the jump in support for Government caused by Ireland’s shiny new Taoiseach and the itchy feet it has resulted in among those in Fianna Fáil suggesting a 2018 election is on the cards, this potential fallout means the outcome is far less certain than is being assumed.

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