GERARD HOWLIN: What would radically change events is defeat at the polls

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Pic: Eamonn Farrell /

The stakes could not be higher for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, writes Gerard Howlin.

UR decision, in just more than 100 days, on the proposed 36th Amendment to the Constitution will be important historically.

Given the variations on a theme that are the effective choice for government make-up, it may be a more important choice than the next general election. Referenda are not, as the Taoiseach characterised this issue in his statement of Monday night, shades of grey. They are black and white in that we, the people, will have a binary choice, to answer yes or no to a specific question. Ultimately the nuance and the detail, of which there is much, will come down to a simple choice. Except there is nothing simple about it.

If what is proposed passes, I doubt it will have much effect on voting intentions in a subsequent election. For what it’s worth, I am inclined to think that we will not have an election in 2018. I may eat those words, but fundamentally, the greater distance between the referendum and a subsequent election, the less backwash that is likely. The enactment of legislation, after successful repeal, to implement the Oireachtas committee’s and now the Government’s recommendation lengthens the timeframe when this is a politically active issue. If there is no clear majority in the Dáil for proposed legislation after a yes vote, that would be a political crisis. It would definitely be the substance of a subsequent general election, and perhaps the pretext for one sooner rather than later.

However, I am inclined to think that if the referendum is passed, legislation will too. There will be the fact of the people having expressed their will. That will be interpreted by many as an effective endorsement of the legislative proposal that accompanies it. It would, bizarrely, evoke the Home Rule crisis, and the issue as to whether the House of Lords could override the will of the Commons. Unlike hereditary lords, there could be no compulsion on a popularly elected Dáil to pass the accompanying legislation, but there would be considerable pressure. There would certainly be consequences for not doing so.

The scenario of proposed legislation unmooring itself from a passed referendum is, in any event, probably tied to the eventual position of Sinn Féin. Some in Fine Gael, many in Fianna Fáil, and Independents including Mattie McGrath will vote against the legislation. Sinn Féin will likely hold the balance of power on the issue and it is the only party that, as of now, seems set to enforce a whip. Mary Lou McDonald will, after February 10, be the new leader. The referendum will be hers and Leo Varadkar’s first outing as party leaders at the polls.

Sinn Féin is in favour of repeal. Its position on what legislation should then be enacted is not, however, in sync with the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee. McDonald’s first big issue as party leader is deciding whether she holds to the current position for abortion in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality or in grave risk to the health or life of the mother, or moves on. It requires an ard fheis to move on.

There will be an annual Sinn Féin ard fheis this spring and there will likely be change, in light of the Oireachtas committee’s report. Ironically, if Sinn Féin does adjust the detail of its position, bearing in mind it is strongly pro-repeal, eventual legislation would result effectively from a Fine Gael-Sinn Féin coalition. That’s exactly the leverage the Irish party enjoyed in 1912 and it would be an ironical replay of old Redmondite tactics on a constitutional question.

If challenging, the path forward from a successful referendum is relatively straightforward. What would radically change events, including the impact on a subsequent general election, is defeat.

The referendum may seem well set, but it is not a certainty. The legislation will be the debate and that hasn’t been published. It’s all very well to muster a majority for some change because the status quo is not approved. It’s a different matter to get a majority on the day, for specifically stated change. There is a middle ground. It is reticent and even shy. It was there and underestimated in the marriage referendum and I believe it will be more significant now.

On marriage we took our fundamental decision in allowing divorce in 1995. Expanding access to an institution, already fundamentally altered, was a small step in hindsight. It played as much to the always-on quest for respectability in middle Ireland as anything to do with equality. What was sitting awkwardly in the sitting room now had to be regularised, because it could no longer be marginalised. This is different. Abortions require clinicians, not wedding planners.

The stakes could not be higher for Leo Varadkar. They are as high for Micheál Martin. It will be business as usual in victory, but a roiling mess if visited by defeat. Times have changed. There is a substantial, energised constituency in favour of abortion.

The blame game will be on the morning after. It will feed into the subsequent general election campaign, perhaps hastening it, and possibly defining it. There is something called momentum in politics. It’s the domino effect of things going right and gathering kudos as the run continues. A bad fall shatters confidence. It disrupts plans, and it even changes the ultimate flow of events.

What would radically change events is defeat at the polls

In a replay of the three general elections in 1981-82 which ultimately saw the Eighth Amendment inserted into the Constitution, the next election would be a cauldron of demands for specific commitments to action.

Who would first walk away from the template proposed, and now being actioned, by the Oireachtas committee on the Eighth Amendment is anyone’s guess. But in an election, tactics run well ahead of strategy. In a scenario where leaders of both main parties had fallen off their horse on this issue, present political patterns might not apply and outcomes could be different.

The Irish people have proven on second thoughts to be serially reluctant to vote for referenda that at first seemed well set. We know that no never really means no because we can always do it again. And we do. Politically, this is now up on the high wire. Trapeze artists who aren’t used to working in tandem will have to deftly catch one another or fall together.

The greater distance between the referendum and a subsequent election, the less backwash that is likely

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