GERARD HOWLIN: Tánaiste’s about turn has only served to create more confusion

By early yesterday afternoon, the Tánaiste’s proposal for a two-thirds majority to protect in perpetuity changes he has influenced in the Government’s proposed abortion legislation lay tossed aside with the remains of lunch and the Strategic Communication Unit.

On abortion, there is some cynicism about politicians embarking on a journey. The realignment of principle with political interest has led to an outbreak of coincidence.

However, changing your mind is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a mark of leadership in many respects. Who among us can bear the weight of all our previous positions?

In some respects, a political change of heart mirrors the public mood. That, unsurprisingly, is how democracy works.

There is also realignment in the face of facts. One fact is that abortion pills are freely available, but medically unsupervised. Another is that, whatever impetus exists to allow abortion in so-called hard cases of incest and rape, these cases are unpoliceable. They would put women in an invidious position, and doctors in an impossible one.

Those I credit with clear thinking either advocate for or oppose abortion. There is a clear case to be made on either side.

I deeply sympathise with those who only want a little abortion for desperate cases. But apart from the obvious principle, there is the absolute impracticality of subjecting the contents of wombs to a moral litmus test dependent on the modality of its origin.

This will be a much simpler but much harder decision for the undecided. We vote in secret. But we won’t have anywhere to hide. There is no middle ground on the ballot paper.

For many undecided, the choice will be to vote for a least-worst scenario. As a group they are, I think, listening more than talking, and shuffling uncomfortably rather than taking hard stances.

When Simon Coveney was interviewed by RTÉ’s Seán O’Rourke on February 1, he certainly shuffled. He said:

“I don’t believe that there should be effectively, as the committee has described, unrestricted access to abortion at any point in time because I don’t believe that that is consistent with the State having a legal obligation to protect an unborn child.”

He would, however, support the Government’s proposed referendum to remove Article 4.3.3. As the former would legislatively seem to be the inevitable outcome of the latter, the more uncomfortable he seemed in that interview, the more confused I became.

Writing in another newspaper on Monday, Mr Coveney explained how his journey has resumed. He rightly said that, “for most people in Ireland, abortion is not something they want to talk about”.

Many will “wait and have their say privately at the ballot box”.

He, however, is Tánaiste. The privacy of the ballot box gives him little cover. In any event, he has already spoken at a time of his own choosing. Essentially, he said his position on Government legislation, which it will present if a referendum to repeal is carried, has changed because the Government will ensure “a baby who could survive outside the womb will not be aborted in any circumstance”.

There will be no late-term abortions. Critically, he also said the Government’s legislation “will not give unrestricted access to abortion at any point in pregnancy”.

This claim is based on protocols to be put in place, including a pause period and the availability of counselling. These protocols may be sensible, but I don’t understand how they change the issue of principle at all. This will now be for the Tánaiste to explain in more detail.

Yesterday, in this newspaper, Mr Coveney’s position took another turn. His spokesperson said: “The Tánaiste is looking for a two-thirds majority to be necessary if there was ever to be any attempt to alter the law in the future.”

The stated reason being that “he hopes this will go some way towards countering the reckless claims that our parliament can’t be trusted and to reassure voters that there will be no creeping change over time if they vote repeal”.

It was chaotic stuff only hours before cabinet met to discuss fully and for the last time, a decision beckoning for months.

It was of course unconstitutional, and, as a political promise, it was a reckless claim in its own right.

Perhaps, unknown to his colleagues he imagined a second simultaneous referendum to allow for such a two third majority. His exact train of thought will need to be explained.

Article 15.11.1 of the constitution states: All questions in each house shall, save as otherwise provided by this constitution, be determined by a majority of the votes of the members present and voting other than the chairman or presiding member. The attorney general yesterday swiftly swept one dog’s dinner into the bin.

Ironically, talk of a two-thirds majority was to safeguard a law which, with trimmings, looks
substantively like the one he was prepared to reject on February 1. There are journeys. Then there are boy racers.

This is a car crash in terms of credibility. The thought process doubles down on the apparent flaw of the Eighth Amendment itself, which was intended to put abortion beyond the reach of politicians who can’t be trusted.

The Eighth Amendment was a crude weapon in a culture war, when then, there was no possibility of a Dáil introducing abortion.

Now the context has changed completely. If removed, abortion legislation is certain. This referendum is not about hard cases. It is about hard decisions, for us.

The referendum was always going to be about the legislation following on foot of it. Since there will be no two-thirds majority hurdle, it too might change in time.

As expected, opinion polls are showing that support for repeal is tightening. That’s hardly surprising, and shouldn’t lead anyone to premature conclusions.

What is certain, however, is that for repeal to win, things have to go right. Some curtailing at Cabinet yesterday of what was originally proposed was clearly intended to make this more palatable for the Tánaiste, and for the shuffling silent.

His handling of the issue thus far isn’t likely to encourage or reassure a vote for repeal, he said from the beginning he is for. He has handed hostages to fortune which will re-emerge in the campaign.

On where he stands on the legislation, which must follow repeal, I am confused. I suspect he is too. The last-minute, if ridiculous, attempt for the protection of a two- thirds majority looked less like a red line than lipstick on a pig.

There is a case for what is being proposed. It has internal logic within it, but it is abortion on demand up to 12 weeks.

Detail has been added, but fundamentally this is the same government proposal as contained in its policy paper. Now the die is cast.


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