Whatever recommendation is made should be automatically dealt with by our legislators, minus any attempts by them to tinker with it or alter it, writes Alison O’Connor
There has been much squealing from our politicians over Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s plan to pass the Repeal the 8th parcel to a bunch of regular folk.
“But we are the ultimate citizen’s assembly,” many of them have been saying; their outrage made all the more righteous by the fact they were so recently either elected or re-elected.
The truth is though, our politicians have been ultimate failures over the decades when it comes to addressing the issue of abortion in this country — claiming they are the ones to sort it now has an almost comic quality, if the events surrounding it were not so tragic.
Of course, in a mature democracy, the national parliament would be the ideal place to address this. But when it comes to abortion, maturity gets checked in at the Dáil cloakroom. This latest instalment of our long-running saga is being led by two blokes in power who are staunchly anti-abortion — Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. I include Micheál Martin here, because he now too has significant power.
As a result, when it comes to what should replace the 1983 8th Amendment which — as article 40.3.3 of the Constitution — guarantees the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn, it is the proposed citizen’s assembly, comprised only of citizens, and with no political involvement, that may now be the perfect place for that to be decided.
But let’s get rid of any notion that we would establish such an assembly and get a bunch of citizen’s together to give of their time, and to get experts to appear before them, only for their recommendations to return to the black hole of Leinster House.
The politicians have had their time (decades of it) and they’ve had their day. Sure, let them appear before the assembly and outline party and individual positions. I for one would love to hear Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin being questioned closely on this, not least their exact positions on the issue of fatal foetal abnormality. But after that, whatever recommendation is made by the assembly on Repealing the 8th and whatever should happen subsequently, should be automatically dealt with by our legislators, minus any attempts by them to tinker with it or alter it, to suit their own electoral purposes.
Would this way of doing this — sticking to a tight timescale — mean there is a very high chance of Enda Kenny being the Taoiseach on whose watch abortion is introduced in Ireland? The straight answer is yes, but he must have recognised the likelihood of that as he was fighting tooth and claw to get back into power. He has made history in being the first ever Fine Gael Taoiseach to get re elected and as part of that he will just have to swallow hard and recognise that there can be no more obfuscation on abortion. Otherwise, there is a strong case for stating that he should have stood down and allowed one of the others interested in leading Fine Gael show the necessary leadership.
When he looks across at the Fianna Fáil benches, there must be comfort for the Taoiseach to know that he and Micheál Martin are kindred spirits on this issue. Still he must be envious of Micheál having the luxury of the attitude of “give me anything to deal with but just don’t give me abortion”. As we know this era of “new politics” means Fianna Fáil will have an important role, and we can only hope that their leader too will show leadership, and his party will follow him.
This column isn’t long enough to go into the many and varied reasons over the decades as to why abortion has not been dealt with, but what is particularly vexing at the moment is the cynical manner in which it has been kicked to touch to suit the personal agendas of those two men. What a joy it was, though, to see AAA deputy Ruth Coppinger and PBP deputy Brid Smith tag teaming in the Dáil earlier this month as they tackled the Taoiseach and indeed Micheál Martin on the need to Repeal the 8th. Add to that mix women deputies like Clare Daly, Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald, and indeed the new Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell and that pair of gentlemen will soon realise that stalling and distractionary tactics simply won’t be quite as easy to pull off anymore.
It was a marvel really to see the Fianna Fáil leader say in the Dáil, with a straight face, that he is in favour of a “judge-led commission” to deal with the issue of what to do with the 8th Amendment. How does he miss the irony of his own failure, and those elected alongside him over the years, when he says that it is not at all clear how a citizen’s assembly could work on an issue “so dramatically more complex” than anything examined by the previous Convention on the Constitution.
But then he is handed a huge comfort blanket by the Taoiseach in their subsequent exchanges when Micheál Martin asks the question: “It [the Dáil] will not be under any obligation to take anything from the citizens’ assembly?” “Correct,” answers his comrade in arms the Taoiseach, saying at another point: “Of course, they will be free to make whatever conclusion or recommendation they wish, but it is in here that the eventual decision will have to be made, namely, if a referendum is to be held, in what form and asking what question.” This pair are either choosing not to see how Irish public opinion has moved on, or are very much out of touch. Of course this is not black and white, but we’ve seen enough opinion poll results now to realise that there is a groundswell of support for a liberalising of the laws on abortion.
Built into their grand plan as it stands right now is the opportunity for even further indecision and prevarication which would be facilitated by the recommendations of the citizen’s assembly having to first go to the Oireachtas Health Committee — before being brought before the Dáil. It is only once that committee has kicked around the recommendations for a number of months, or who knows, we can’t rule out years, that it would come before all our elected deputies.
This week Ruth Coppinger in the Dáil majored on the issue again referring to the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s finding that Amanda Mellet, who was carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality, suffered discrimination “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” in the Republic.
Deputy Coppinger believes that a citizen’s assembly would be a charade. Her cynicism is understandable. However, a citizen’s assembly, established with the guarantee that what it recommends would happen, and within a reasonable timeframe, is a far different reality. Enda and Micheál would no doubt baulk at this suggestion, but they need to get out of their time warp on this one.
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