Enda lets the abortion issue trip him up again

Rancour in the Coalition over the latest abortion bill vote is unnecessary and caused by nothing other than Kenny’s arrogance, hubris, and insecurity, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell

Enda lets the abortion issue trip him up again

IT HAS been famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Next Tuesday, the Dáil will once again debate a bill which seeks to liberalise the country’s abortion laws.

Anti-Austerity Alliance TD Ruth Coppinger’s bill has been well flagged but once again it has placed the viability of this weak minority Government in jeopardy.

During the summer, the Coalition came close to collapse over a refusal of the Independent Alliance members to bow to the Fine Gael whip, on a similar bill brought by Independent TD Mick Wallace.

An ugly spat ensued which saw the credibility of the Attorney General Máire Whelan called into question, and an embarrassing climbdown for Taoiseach Enda Kenny. He was forced to consent to a free vote for the Independent Alliance, some of whom — ministers Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and John Halligan — have strong pro-choice beliefs.

The episode did little to improve relations between Fine Gael and their non-party colleagues who find themselves side by side in Government together.

Halligan vented his fury at Fine Gael on the abortion issue and previously on the issue of water charges, telling “arrogant” ministers to “shut their mouths”.

Last week, Independent Alliance members told me Fine Gael are “in denial” if they think they can force them to oppose a new bill to liberalise abortion.

They said a free vote is not in the gift of Enda Kenny to grant and they are insisting that such a situation pertains when the bill is debated next week.

“We are not in the business of asking for a free vote. It is not their decision to make,” one alliance member told me.

Throughout last week, several Alliance members said they will be demanding a free vote on an upcoming bill in the Dáil to repeal the controversial Eighth Amendment on abortion.

Following a major row in the summer over a similar bill, brought forward by Independent TD Mick Wallace, the Coalition almost fell over a refusal by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to agree to a free vote.

While there have been some meetings to try and resolve the matter, the Alliance have stated clearly they “will not be pushed around by Fine Gael”.

Minister and Waterford TD John Halligan, said he is adamant that a free vote must happen, but added he did not want to see the stability of the Government placed in jeopardy again.

He said: “I know there are some in Fine Gael who want to roll us over because they feel we did it to them last time. I will not be pushed around on this issue by them. They should just agree to a free vote and kill the controversy.”

Another Alliance member, who asked not to be named, said Fine Gael are in denial, thinking they can force them to oppose the new Coppinger bill: “It is a bit late now, only getting around to this now, but the budget took up a lot of time and energy. Fine Gael are in denial on this, we are requiring a free vote.”

“We are not in a mood to oppose the bill. We have different opinions on it. Boxer Moran and Sean Canney will want to vote with the Government and we have no problem with that. We can’t understand why this is now an issue and they are not simply agreeing the free vote,” the source said.

All week, behind-the-scenes conversations have been going on.

The Alliance’s programme manager, Tony Williams, has been given the responsibility of trying to defuse the row with Fine Gael before the Dáil debates the bill on Tuesday.

Williams, a well-regarded media lawyer, is no stranger to politics but even his skills were tested in trying to pin down his own TDs for a meeting to discuss the issue.

It got tricky at one point when Finance Minister Michael Noonan said he could understand if Alliance members did a U-turn and voted against the Coppinger bill.

This caused outrage amid the Alliance and quickly a statement was released through their new deputy government press secretary, former Star journalist Catherine Halloran.

She said: “FYI, reports that the Independent Alliance have decided to join forces with the Government on the Coppinger Bill are untrue. Discussions are ongoing.”

On the surface, such a statement is perfectly harmless. A holding line while matters are being debated.

But parse the phraseology of it.

The bit about not joining forces with the Government as opposed to Fine Gael is very revealing as to the dynamic in Government.

They still in some ways see themselves outside the tent, even though they have the seals of office.

At one stage, one Alliance member told me they were considering accepting an amendment committing to a free vote on Citizens’ Assembly proposals when they come back to the Dáil, which could see them vote the Coppinger bill down.

But it seems that has been ruled out, as it was pointed out Kenny had promised a free vote on that all along.

But for the criticisms levelled at the Alliance, they have been straight and upfront as to their position on the issue of abortion from the start.

In the run-up to the Wallace bill, they repeatedly warned Kenny and Fine Gael that they did not want a row, but they were adamant a free vote would have to apply.

They are simply saying the same thing again.

Therefore, the problem is Kenny’s and Fine Gael’s.

Perhaps angered by what happened in July, the Fine Gael refusal so far to countenance a free vote is idiotic, especially when it looks like the Coppinger bill will fall, as Wallace’s did.

It also smacks of vengeance because of the perceived humiliation forced upon them by the upstarts led by Ross.

The Alliance members were gathered in Enniskerry yesterday afternoon for the funeral mass of Ross’s mother Ruth Isabel.

Kenny and his key advisor, Mark Kenneally, were in Brussels attending the summit.

This was an issue that again didn’t need to be an issue and caused by nothing other than the hubris, arrogance and insecurity of Kenny.

He feared that relenting again to a free vote would make him look weak to his own troops.

The problem is that Kenny is weak and the sight of an ebullient Leo Varadkar at Leaders’ Questions on Thursday would do little to comfort him.

It was bizarre to see how giddy the Leo fan club got as he stood in for his leader in the Dáil — the future they hoped would come sooner rather than later.

Come Tuesday, the Dáil will commence the debate on Coppinger’s bill and all eyes and ears will be on what ministers, both Fine Gael and Independent, have to say.

But Enda has once again allowed another needless crisis threaten his Government.

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