Enda Kenny looks set to “soften” his position with Independent Alliance ministers and allow them a free vote on proposed legislation this week to liberalise Ireland’s abortion laws.
Ahead of a tense meeting between Fine Gael ministers and Independent ministers at Cabinet today, there were signs last night that a compromise would be agreed on the Bill.
Government sources said Mr Kenny looks set to “bite his lip” and accept alliance ministers supporting TD Mick Wallace’s abortion bill — despite legal advice it is “unconstitutional”.
A senior source said: “He is softening up. There’s the impression he is going to bite his lip on this.”
There were indications from Mr Kenny yesterday that he might let the non-Fine Gael ministers off the hook when it came to maintaining “collective Cabinet responsibility”.
Asked what sanctions Cabinet ministers may face if they back the bill, which proposes allowing abortion for fatal foetal abnormalities, Mr Kenny replied: “I’ve heard comments about whipping systems and so on, they only apply to political parties and obviously there are five members of the Cabinet table who are not members of my own party and therefore they are not subject to any whipping arrangements in that regard.”
Housing Minister Simon Coveney equally seemed calm about Independent ministers ignoring attorney general Maire Whelan’s advice.
“The Independent Alliance feel they need a free vote on this bill, many of them would have voted for this bill a number of months ago,” said Mr Coveney. “I don’t think we’re going to make a big deal of it in government.”
Transport Minister Shane Ross said that the Supreme Court court should test the Bill. Advice from the Attorney General was “simply an opinion”, Mr Ross contended.
Fellow alliance members, Disability Minister Finian McGrath and junior jobs minister John Halligan, will also support the bill, said Mr Ross.
However, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar, who has said that Ireland’s abortion laws are too restrictive, sounded a note of warning.
Allowing the free vote could set a “difficult precedent”.
“If you are willing to disregard or go against the advice of the Attorney General on one thing inevitably you will come under pressure on other things to do the same,” said Mr Varadkar.
But Mr McGrath told the Irish Examiner last night that there was no way alliance ministers would back down.
“We’re prepared to discuss this,” said Mr McGrath. “But we’re not for turning on the right to have a free vote on the issue of conscience.”
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