Alison O’Connor.


Committee members’ exemplary conduct brings referendum closer

Wednesday’s votes felt like a massive step forward for Irish women’s reproductive rights, writes Alison O’Connor.

Committee members’ exemplary conduct brings referendum closer

I WAS wrong. I’m delighted I was wrong. Just months ago I virtually wrote off the prospects of the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment, and the ability of our elected politicians to take up where the Citizens’ Assembly had left off. But they did exactly that and more.

Having so closely observed the work of the Assembly I fretted about the Leinster House politicians who didn’t even want to serve on the committee, that they would toss around the citizen’s proposals like a political football, that they would indulge in pointless and harmful duplication and attempt to rerun the same territory. It was impossible to imagine assembly chair Judge Mary Laffoy having anything but mixed feelings as she handed over her report to the joint committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

As it turned out they haven’t just surprised the media, but also their own colleagues, including the Cabinet. Right up to quite recently it looked as if political machinations outside of the committee room might have resulted in a far more conservative outcome from the process, regardless of what the committee might have felt.

As they take off for their Christmas break the TDs and senators, with two notable exceptions, can hold their heads high at how they conducted themselves, so ably led by Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, in exceptionally trying circumstances. There was respect and courtesy between the members who operated with intelligence and a clear strategy in mind, despite party political divisions. They choose very well in those they asked to address them on the issue, and with each week that passed it was clear to see how the debate surrounding the issue was maturing.

People like Independent Senator Lynn Ruane, Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, Independents4Change TD Clare Daly, People Before Profit TD Brid Smyth, Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger, joint leader of the Social Democrats Catherine Murphy, Labour TD Jan O’Sullivan, Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers all contributed hugely to the progress made by the committee. What about Co Kerry Fianna Fáil senator Ned O’Sullivan, a newfound hero of the repeal the Eighth movement. He told one meeting earlier this month that he didn’t have any special wisdom to give apart from his respect for women, and that he had a growing awareness that this was about women’s healthcare.

There’s the political bravery of Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher who led the way in tabling the motion to support terminations without restrictions up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, no easy task given the party of which he is a member. What about Fine Gael TD Hildegarde Naughton who played her cards close to her chest all along but this week said her position on abortion had changed since hearing the evidence. Or her party colleague Bernard Durkan who describes himself as anti-abortion, but at the end of this process believes there are circumstances in which terminations should be allowed.

What about Sinn Féin TD Jonathan O’Brien, who brought great humanity to his contributions. He started off as anti-abortion but said the committee hearings had changed his mind. He was one of three Sinn Féin members, including health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly and Senator Paul Gavan, who also impressed. But the party found themselves in the unusual position of being caught out politically in terms of not supporting terminations up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy. It’s members were subject to a party whip, unlike Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

There were Fianna Fáil TDs James Browne and Anne Rabbite, who would most certainly have been counted on the anti-abortion side at the beginning of the process. On Tuesday though both said they were in favour of amending Article 40.3.3 to allow for abortion in certain circumstances.

But back to the two exceptions, Senator Ronan Mullen and TD Mattie McGrath. That pair ultimately harmed their own anti-abortion cause with their histrionics and tantrums. The process also highlighted what will be a very significant problem for the pro-life side during a referendum campaign — they have only a handful of people willing to step forward and debate publicly, and none of the intellectual heft of someone like William Binchy in his heyday. They are dealing with less support around the country, as well as a weakened Catholic Church behind them.

While it was all quite low key Wednesday’s votes felt like a massive step forward for Irish women’s reproductive rights. However there is still no guarantee we will have a referendum on abortion. From this vantage point it is really difficult to predict whether a referendum vote in the Dáil would be carried.

One well-placed Fianna Fáiler who had run the numbers reckoned that only nine of the party’s 45 TDs would be happy to back the recommendation on access to terminations without restriction up to 12 weeks — and while two of those nine, James Browne and Anne Rabbitte — have moved their positions from where they were at the start of the process, they are still more conservative. As one Fine Gael minister said this week: “Billy Kelleher has shown real leadership but within his own party he’s not leading many.”

It’s more difficult to gauge Fine Gael members, even the ministers or the Taoiseach. Will he accept the views of the committee even though he has signalled in the past that he is more conservative on the issue? There are members of his Cabinet, particularly Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who would certainly not be comfortable with 12 weeks without restriction. Equally politicians can see the way in which opinion polls consistently show voters want the Eighth Amendment repealed. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin only backs terminations in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities.

A rural Fianna Fáil TD told me this week that the communication on the issue he receives is divided 50:50 between pro-life and pro-choice. How many TDs, despite their personal views, may simply say publicly it is their democratic duty to vote in favour of a referendum to let the people decide? Health Minister Simon Harris has proven a very steady hand in the process thus far.

The committee’s final report will be published on December 20 and sent to the Oireachtas for consideration. It’s not exactly recommended yuletide reading but deputies have a duty to study it over the next few weeks. It would be a good idea if the Government did not take a position on the report, and made its first step a call for a special Dáil debate on abortion, prior to the Dail’s official return after the Christmas break. After that the Government would need to make known what it proposes, ideally using the committee’s recommendations as it’s basis.

Last week as the TDs and senators gave what was intended to be their closing contributions to the committee, Senator Ruane said she hoped the solidarity that had emerged in the committee room between her Leinster House colleagues would be replicated in a referendum. Let’s make that our Christmas wish.

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