DANIEL MCCONNELL: Coveney breaks his silence on abortion U-turn

Daniel McConnell, in conversation with Tanaiste Simon Coveney. Pic: Dave Meehan

Simon Coveney has had a bruising few months, writes Daniel McConnell.

From losing the Fine Gael leadership to becoming Tánaiste, to now finding himself at the heart of the ongoing raging debate about Ireland’s abortion laws.

This week, we sat down to discuss his journey from a deeply committed pro-life father to one who is now strongly advocating a yes vote in next Friday’s referendum.

On February 1, he took to the airwaves to break his silence and confirm he has deep concerns over one of the key recommendations from an Oireachtas committee as to how our abortion laws would be changed, should the people decide to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

The lengthy interview with RTÉ broadcaster Sean O’Rourke drew a lot of criticism because he appeared to be conflicted in his thinking and unsure in places of what he was backing.

He expressed deep concerns about one of the committee’s recommendations.

He said he was uncomfortable about a possibility of allowing unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks.

He tells me: “I said that on Sean O’Rourke as to why I am supporting a yes vote but I also said that one of the recommendations of the committee I was uncomfortable with. That was what was understood as being unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks. I think a lot of people feel we need to change but do we need to go that far?”

Then on March 26, in an opinion piece in the Irish Independent, he shocked many when he declared that he was now on board, fully backing a yes vote and also supporting the 12-weeks proposal.

What changed in those few weeks, I ask him.

He says there was a moment when his thinking was profoundly changed. And it was on foot of a visit to his constituency office by a woman from Cobh.

“As a senior politician, there was a moment when my perspective on all of this changed. It was a moment when a young woman from Cobh came to see me and very politely asked to see me in my clinic in Carrigaline,” he says.

She just wanted to tell me her story which was an incredibly powerful one involving a fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis. It involved her having to travel on her own, having to bring the body of her child in a tiny coffin on the back seat of her car on a ferry. She was incredibly dignified and polite.

“It wasn’t an anger. It was a sadness that someone else would have go through this. And she was asking the question, was this what we wanted when we changed the Constitution in the 1980s?

“So, I made a commitment to her that I would think about that and try and find a way to ensure the State could respond in a far more comprehensive way,” he says.

“So after that interview, we opened discussions. I spent a lot of time speaking with consultants, with women who had horrific experiences because of the unintended consequences of the Eighth Amendment.

“Simon Harris agreed that we could put together ways in which we could provide reassurance to people that we are not providing unrestricted access in the first 12 weeks,” he says.

“The first thing I clarified is that this is not the first 12 weeks of pregnancy but the first 12 weeks of gestation which is the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.”

And then on the really difficult issue of 12 weeks, he says he spent a lot of time talking about how “we could reassure people like me that this was not going to be a simple case of someone going to get a prescription to terminate a pregnancy”.

So what is agreed now, is that the Government is going to legislate on the basis of a strict protocol, what he calls informed consent protocol whereby doctors and a woman would have to sign off on what is called fully informed consent.

He says before an abortion is approved, a conversation between a doctor and a woman would have to go through all the alternatives, that all the consequences are understood and at the end of that process he also agreed on top of that there would be a 72-hour reflection period.

“My position on this is not making the classic pro-choice argument but instead is reflecting the reality where Irish women are in terms of decisions — often in real crisis. So rather than British abortion laws applying to Irish women, which is what we have today, we say Ireland needs to deal with this with its own legislation,” he says.

But Coveney does accept he was at fault just 24 hours after his op-ed piece in the Independent appeared when it was floated from his office that he was seeking a two-thirds Dáil majority rule to be put in place in order to amend abortion laws into the future.

The idea was well briefed to the media and ran on the front pages of several newspapers on the morning of Cabinet, but by lunchtime, his proposal was dead in the water.

It was immediately slapped down as “unconstitutional”, naive, and a danger to the yes campaign, by some of his own ministerial colleagues.

Breaking his silence on the matter, the Tánaiste accepts the proposal became a frustrating distraction.

“I am glad you have asked me that question. I deliberately stayed out of that debate because it was becoming a distraction,” he says.

“It was incredibly frustrating that that distraction happened because we had worked so hard over the previous four months to make all these other changes which are now part and parcel of the proposal.

“But the two-thirds majority thing created such a distraction and all that we were looking at was ways in which there would be a permanence to the new legislation. That this wouldn’t be an opening of the door that would keep opening, that once the legislation was agreed that would be it and it would not be easily changed,” he says.

“So it was in that context that we were looking at multiple ideas including this two thirds idea, which gathered pace over a 12-hour period. There was never a definitive proposal on the table going to Cabinet, there was a conversation going on about options,” he adds.

But it was floated and shot down very quickly, I say.

“I accept that. This was floated as a way of trying to reassure people that there could be a bit more permanence than there normally is around legislation. It kind of got legs and we couldn’t pull it back in again,” he concedes.

“It would have been better if it wasn’t handled the way it was. I take some of the responsibility, I am not going to apportion blame to other colleagues. It was a distraction we could have done without, but the actual motivation behind it was a very genuine one. But it was frustrating by the time we were properly assessing it, it was already over the front pages in the newspapers.”

“I think the real frustration is that it missed the other substantive changes that were agreed, but it became the sole focus when the opposition said it was unconstitutional,” he says.

As we finish up, he makes a plea to those readers of this column who are still unsure which way to vote.

“The choice for people is quite a stark one. If you vote no, the status quo is what you get for the foreseeable future,” he says.

“If you vote yes, you are giving permission to people like me and others to introduce legislation that can deal with in a far more comprehensive way with the complexities and responsibility the State has towards women and balancing that with the protections which are needed for the unborn.

“I think we can do that,” he concludes.

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