ALISON O'CONNOR: Fianna Fáil TDs say we should not trust the Oireachtas to legislate

Fianna Fáil party whip, Michael Moynihan.

Tolerance for listening to someone who holds the opposite view to your own on abortion depends, I find, on the day, the hour and the speaker, writes Alison O'Connor.

But if there is one thing worthy of zero tolerance it is the elected politicians in our national parliament who say, in essence, that the public would be mad to trust them.

We had a number of examples of that in the Dáil this week during the debate on the bill to allow the holding of the abortion referendum which passed, happily, by 97 votes to 27 on Wednesday night.

It shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose, that it was Fianna Fáilers, in their contributions, who were most inclined to tell the public that politicians were not to be trusted on such important matters. 

For instance, Bobby Aylward pointing out that if the protection of the Eighth Amendment is removed “the fate of the unborn will be placed in the hands of the legislators”.

“Future Governments with a strong majority, whether they lean hard to the left or hard to the right, could make further legislative change which the people of Ireland may have no control over. That is important,” said Mr Aylward.

Bobby Aylward
Bobby Aylward

Elaborating on the theme, party whip Michael Moynihan said it was “not acceptable to allow an Oireachtas, whatever its make up, to decide” on the rights of the unborn.

“Many people debating this 35 years ago would not have envisaged the type of Oireachtas we have today and who is to say what an Oireachtas of the future will be like? 

"It could be ultraliberal or ultraconservative but God alone knows. I am standing by what is in the Constitution and it should not be repealed,” said Mr Moynihan.

Surely that is the point of a democracy — the voters go to the polls, on average every five years or so, and they have the power to elect whomever they wish.

Ploughing a similar doubting furrow TD Eamon Scanlon roundly talked down himself and his Dáil colleagues. “As a political class, can we be completely trusted on this issue? I do not think so,” said the Sligo/Leitrim TD. 

Somewhat perplexingly he also said that those surrounding him in the Dáil chamber had the right to be there and had been “put here by the people”.

The contribution of FF Laois/Offaly TD Sean Fleming bordered on the extraordinary when he said that deputies were involved in a “power grab” with the idea that they would be the ones to legislate for the grounds on which abortion be allowed, once the Eighth Amendment is repealed.

Sean Fleming
Sean Fleming

“I want the people to think about this. As I said, very important issues are dealt with in the Constitution and I would consider the issue of life and death to be a matter for the people to decide rather than Deputies. I am concerned that Deputies want to take too much power for themselves.”

He went on to commend the public for not trusting politicians.

“One of the reasons is that there are 158 of us here... We have a particular bias on most issues either for or against, although some are probably neutral and their views change over a period of time. We are not a neutral assembly.”

What bizarre and illogical views for someone who has been elected to represent a constituency in the national parliament, and to what end? 

Politicians who hold this view, it could be argued, do not deserve to hold office. Not to mention opting to not even give the Irish people the option to vote in a referendum themselves.

Abortion has been our major national controversy for decades. It’s fair enough to have a particular view on abortion, but a potential Dáil candidate, hoping to get elected, could hardly argue they did not expect it could possibly be voted on during their time as a legislator. 

What a cop out to suggest otherwise. Politicians get enough of a hard time, admittedly merited at times, without their own denigrating them and further eroding our faith in democracy.

The good news is that Labour leader Brendan Howlin stood the ground for politicians.

“That was the spurious argument made in 1983,” he recalled. “I believe the real position is the exact opposite.

Politicians, no more than any other citizen, struggle with this issue and act in accordance with their consciences. If afforded the responsibility of legislating for this issue, I am confident that all the members of these houses will do so in accordance with their best beliefs, the balance of advice afforded to them by medical experts, and in the best interests, as we perceive it, of the people of this Republic.

Our 158 TDs are elected from constituencies all around the country, representing all parties and none. That is our democracy. 

The bar was set very high for our politicians on this issue by the members of the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment. 

We saw the cross party co-operation there; the mature approach evident throughout its work (barring a few notable exceptions).

The launch of the “Together for Yes” group yesterday should really kickstart the referendum campaign. 

The role of civil society groups, and the co-operation between them will be huge in this campaign to convince people to vote yes on the basis of the health of Irish women. 

The second group that will be key will be doctors, as we saw from the weight given to their contributions at the Citizens Assembly and the committee on the Eighth.

Members of the Yes Campaign during the launch of Together for Yes campaign. Pic: Gareth Chaney Collins
Members of the Yes Campaign during the launch of Together for Yes campaign. Pic: Gareth Chaney Collins

All going to plan the referendum bill will have passed through the Oireachtas by the end of next week. Health Minister Simon Harris will have brought the heads of bill to Cabinet next Tuesday. 

This will be his last chance to make any final abortion changes, for instance, in how many days a woman might have to wait between requesting an abortion and receiving the medication, or a definite number of doctors needed to sign off on a termination related to a woman’s life, health or mental health. 

Many of the decisions around exactly what will occur when a woman presents requesting an abortion, in terms of medical guidelines, can be expected to be decided by organisations such as the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Irish College of General Practitioners with a role also for the Medical Council.

After Easter we can expect the political campaigns to really kick in. Labour will be campaigning as a party, as will the Social Democrats, unsurprisingly Fianna Fáil will not be running a campaign. 

Only a matter of weeks ago there was a doubt about Fine Gael’s ability to mount any effective party campaign given the lack of unity in Cabinet, primarily concerning Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

Fine Gael Minister for Health Simon Harris with Fine Gael TD Katie O Connell, Senator Catherine Noone and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy. Pic: Leah Farrell/ RollingNews.ie
Fine Gael Minister for Health Simon Harris with Fine Gael TD Katie O Connell, Senator Catherine Noone and Marcella Corcoran Kennedy. Pic: Leah Farrell/ RollingNews.ie

At the last minute it has apparently pulled it all together and can expect to be a campaigning force to be reckoned with over the next few months, led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. 

This is just as it should be for a referendum proposed by the Government.

This abortion campaign may be led by the civil society groups, but the role of our elected deputies remains pivotal both in the campaigning and, hopefully, in the subsequent legislating. 

Despite what some of their Dáil brethren may think this is the job this they were elected to do.

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