Amid all the noise of the Government versus Nphet row this week, a truly seismic decision by Dáil Eireann has passed by without sufficient attention.
Perhaps with all of the bandwidth taken up by the who knew what and when of the decision by Nphet to recommend moving to level 5 restrictions nationally, and also Leo Varadkar’s over-the-top criticisms of Dr Tony Holohan, the historic vote on Wednesday night slipped largely under the radar.
The fact the vote occurred just before 10pm on Wednesday night also may have a lot to do with it.
What am I talking about?
The decision by the Dáil to approve passage of Gino Kenny’s Dying with Dignity Bill by 81 votes to 71 was the key hurdle to be passed in order to allow it to become law.
Seen as the new frontline in the country’s ever-evolving social agenda, the issue of allowing terminally ill people end their own lives has been fast-tracked up to the top of the political agenda.
This bill is backed by cancer campaigner Vicky Phelan, by Tom Curran, husband of the late Marie Fleming, and by Gail O’Rorke who was acquitted after being charged with seeking to aid her friend travel to Switzerland to access services.
In rejecting Marie Fleming’s case to be allowed end her own life in 2013, the court did state that it is open to the Oireachtas to bring in legislation to allow people a choice in a way that is consistent with the Constitution.
On Wednesday, the bill passed after a proposed government amendment to kick it into a talking shop committee for a year was roundly rejected by 86 votes to 65.
And what was more remarkable was how the decision of a rump of conservative TDs in Fianna Fáil swung the balance in favour of the bill’s passage, even though they had grave reservations with what is proposed.
For several weeks, TDs in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been seeking guidance from their leaders as to what was happening with the bill and what way they should vote on it.
While they were told a free vote would apply, the lack of clear direction and a lack of answers about their concerns was leading to a growing sense of unease among many of the TDs who had also opposed the move to repeal the Eighth Amendment in 2018.
At Wednesday’s Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting, held only a couple of hours before the vote on the bill, several TDs pressed their leader, Taoiseach Micheál Martin on the government amendment.
Sources within the party have said that questions to Mr Martin, about how the bill was proceeding, from Éamon Ó Cuív, Andreas Moynihan, and Cormac Devlin were “not addressed adequately”, they felt.
“It was expected that Micheál would give a direction, but he didn’t no matter how hard he was pressed, and it is safe to say it drove a few of us mad,” said one.
“Micheál was confronted about what we felt was the unacceptable fact that the bill was being passed at second stage under the government amendment, albeit delayed a year. Many of us felt the process should start at the beginning. But he gave us nothing so anyone who was wavering simply voted against,” said one TD.
As a result, a synchronised decision was taken by a group of TDs to vote down the government amendment and ultimately 11 Fianna Fáil TDs — junior minister Mary Butler, Jackie Cahill, former minister Dara Calleary, Cormac Devlin, Joe Flaherty, John Lahart, John McGuinness, Michael Moynihan, former deputy leader Éamon Ó Cuiv and former minister Brendan Smith — all voted against the amendment.
Sources have said that ahead of the vote in the expansive Convention Centre, anxious and nervous Fianna Fáil TDs were seeking advice from Mr Ó Cuiv as how to cast their ballot.
“Ó Cuiv was directing traffic, several younger TDs who were left confused by Micheál’s arse-boxing at the PP were looking to him for guidance as what to do,” said one TD.
While some TDs have said they opposed the amendment because it essentially meant the bill would be accepted, albeit in 12 months time, they accepted their tactics have backfired as the bill in its entirety was passed moments later.
“Yes, that is true, the bill has now passed, but the hope had been among some that they would help defeat the bill in its entirety. That clearly didn’t happen,” admitted a TD.
When the final vote on the bill to allow it to be read a second time occurred, another round of curious voting took place.
Of the 81 TDs who voted in favour of the bill were seven Cabinet ministers including Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Justice Minister Helen McEntee (who backed the amendment to delay the bill moments before).
According to the official roll call, Mr Varadkar, Minsters McEntee, Stephen Donnelly, Simon Harris, Eamon Ryan, Catherine Martin and Roderic O’Gorman all voted in favour of the bill just minutes after they sought to block it.
Other government TDs who backed the bill’s passage included Ciaran Cannon, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, Patrick Costello, Bernard Durkan, Alan Farrell, Brendan Griffin, Emer Higgins, Neasa Hourigan, James Lawless, Brian Leddin, Steven Matthews, Paul McAuliffe, Eoghan Murphy, Malcolm Noonan and Marc Ó Cathasaigh.
Those who opposed the bill included Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Ministers Simon Coveney, Norma Foley, Heather Humphreys, Michael McGrath, Darragh O’Brien and Charlie McConalogue.
Sources close to the Taoiseach have said that when he changed his mind on the Eighth Amendment he made clear at the time that he was not in favour of backing the issue of assisted dying.
Asked about his flip-flop on the two votes between the amendment and the final bill, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar explained his actions by saying: “There was a free vote of conscience on the bill itself. So, TDs and ministers within Fine Gael were free to make up their own minds.”
A spokesman for Ms McEntee said while she has concerns about aspects of the Dying with Dignity Bill, and would have preferred the Oireachtas Committee option, she hopes for a calm, reasoned debate on what is proposed.
“It will hopefully move to the committee in the next four to six weeks and there will be witnesses from the medical side, the legal side, and the patient side,” said Mr Kenny.
“It will take the guts of around four to six months for a report on that process to be produced. It is not going to be straightforward and it is difficult to know where it will go.
“There could be a scenario where this never sees the light of day and gathers dust but, because of the cross-party support so far, I think that is unlikely.” He said the committee report could also call for a referendum or citizens’ assembly.
Whatever the course from here, the Dáil’s passage of the bill at second stage was a significant milestone.
As Vicky Phelan declared: “It was a good day for democracy,” even if the motivations behind the result were less than honourable.