DANIEL MCCONNELL: Issue of Eighth Amendment is not as black and white as the slogan

THERE they sat, with their black and white repeal T-shirts clearly visible under their jackets.

The Anti Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit TDs were clearly gearing up for a stunt at leader’s questions, the highest profile part of the Dáil day.

And sure enough, once Ruth Coppinger got up to her feet to try and embarrass Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s lack of progress in terms of liberalising the country’s abortion laws, the jackets came off and the T-shirts were in full view.

For those not aware, the showing off of slogans in the Dáil chamber and around Leinster House is a big no no.

After leaders’ questions concluded, several AAA-PBP TDs were seen being spoken to by the captain of the guards and the superintendent, who no doubt reminded them of the rules.

If it was an attempt to get a rise out of Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, then it backfired.

Maybe a number of his predecessors may have bitten and become involved in a heated row, but Ó Fearghaíl chose to ignore the T-shirts, thus robbing them of their oxygen.

But it was Kenny’s droll response to Coppinger which got the best response.

“I respect the view of the deputy completely but it is not a black and white situation.

“The T-shirts may be black and have white writing on them but this is about people and people have different views,” he said.

Kenny was right, the issue is not black and white, and his description accurately describes the state of play between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance on how to deal with Coppinger’s pending bill to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

In July, the Government came incredibly close to collapsing over the issue of abortion, and two ministers speaking to me said the Coalition was “sleepwalking” itself into another crisis.

The alliance are meeting today to discuss their game plan with their new programme manager, ex-media lawyer Tony Williams, and some sources have said a free vote is the only tenable position for them to adopt.

“It is difficult and I sense Fine Gael would like us to roll over, but we are not inclined to do that. But no one wants a repeat of the drama which blew up greater than anyone expected it to,” said one minister.

Some others feels that given the bill will be debated so soon after the budget, that they may find themselves on the day of the debate without an agreed position, which has the risk of causing chaos.

Away from abortion, Finance Minister Michael Noonan surprised everyone by laying out large chunks of his tax proposals for the budget to his cabinet colleagues yesterday.

Cuts to USC, improvements to inheritance tax thresholds, better news for the self-employed, and some relief for landlords, were the central tenets of his plan.

Clearly, Noonan knew what he said would leak out of the room as it did, but for him to be so prescriptive so far out from budget day is unusual.

But this feeds into the narrative that Fine Gael want this budget to be “as boring as possible”, and there was a feeling they want to pass it as smoothly as possible.

This is a consequence of it being a minority Government and this budget will have to be owned by all sides, and last minute surprises don’t lend themselves to great levels of cohesion.

Think back to Brendan Howlin’s rows with James Reilly over his health numbers in 2011 and 2012.

So, the abortion issue may not be black and white, but it seems Noonan, who himself has had a bad year, wants his half of the budget to be as clear cut as possible.

New politics and all that. Great isn’t it?

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