Decision on the Eighth: A Tánaiste and his conscience

Flip-flopping is a tool of the trade in the politician’s kitbag, and it’s one that in popular democracies has a long history.

Decision on the Eighth: A Tánaiste and his conscience

Flip-flopping is a tool of the trade in the politician’s kitbag, and it’s one that in popular democracies has a long history.

While campaigning for votes in 1860, the rightly-esteemed Abraham Lincoln said that if elected he would not intrude

in the government of the states, especially on the issue of slavery. He said it again in his inaugural address, adding that the use of federal troops within the states would be “gravest of crimes”. Lincoln, a little later, changed his mind.

Others, famously are flip-floppers on climate change; or Europe; or their nation’s role in the world.

There are many times, and on many issues, that sceptical commentators and voters can with justification look at the

U-turning politician and write him or her off as a vote-chaser with portable principles, or just someone who the first time around had opened their mouth before thinking . . . or before commissioning a focus group. So what is to be made of Simon Coveney’s change of opinion on the Eighth Amendment question?

It was expected, last month, that the Tánaiste would campaign against the legalisation of abortion, having told RTÉ Radio One he believed there should be protection for an unborn child all of the way through pregnancy . . . before or after 12 weeks. Now, little more than a month later, he “strongly” supports change, since the Government plans to replace it — he explains with great care and sensitivity — with a law that will provide safeguards preventing unrestricted access to abortion, albeit ones that will disappoint many who have argued for a more radical liberalisation.

What, it is fair to ask, has changed his thinking so rapidly, given that he says he has spent “many months discussing and consulting widely” on the system needed to replace the Eighth Amendment?

We do not doubt Mr Coveney’s sincerity on this question; he knows, as we all do, that this is a matter in which there can be no place whatsoever for vote-chasing and game-playing, although it’s reasonable to assume that his change of heart will move votes. In which case, therefore, the more prudent course might have been to have held his counsel in February while weighing both the input from his consultations and the concerns about which he’s been told by the “overwhelming” numbers of people who have spoken to him in supermarkets and on the streets.

Mr Coveney says his approach would be based on what allows him to sleep at night. No man or woman with a fair mind and a good heart would object to that. It is for him and all who vote in the referendum a question ultimately of conscience. It is a moment, then, to recall the words of a great 18th-century Irish thinker, British legislator, and champion of Roman Catholic emancipation, Edmund Burke, who in 1774 told electors in Bristol: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion . . . His unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you... ”

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