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By Eamon Delaney

It is barely a month since the start of the momentous, historic campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and already it is proving that it is going to much more difficult than was thought.

The abortion issue (or outright ban on) has periodically convulsed Ireland for over 35 years, so sorting it out by removing the original controversial amendment inserted in 1983, which gives equal right to the foetus as to the mother, would be a big prize for any government. The current Government said it would grasp the nettle. But within just a week of outlining its plans, the obstacles were piling up.

Although opinion polls show a clear majority for Repeal and even go on to introduce a 12 week availability for abortion, it will still be a very close campaign and could well be lost. This poll lead will probably seriously erode as the campaign progresses – and there are just so many imponderables here.

I wouldn’t have thought this before and, indeed, I believed that time and demographics was against the Retain the Eighth cause, whatever its merits. However, a number of big hurdles have suddenly come into the play and we are looking at an atmosphere of confusion and division, not to mention political unwillingness to go along with ‘the establishment programme’.

That is, if we assume this to be the ‘modernisation of Ireland’ that most of the media and commentators crave. But we are in an era of disruption (of Brexit, Trump and rebellious electorates in Eastern Europe) and if any country likes cocking a snook at its rulers in referendums it is the Irish !

This is hard to believe. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed like it was just Mattie McGrath TD and Senator Ronan Mullen who were going front and centre for the Pro life cause, and providing easy pickings for sketch writers. Now, however, a whole range of TDs and in both parties remain undecided or have come out on the Pro Life side.

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Nor is it just older, rural and conservative TDs. Also against Repeal in FF are Dublin TDs Jim O’Callaghan and Daire O’Brien, from leafy D4 and leafy Malahide respecively, have also expressed reservations. In Fine Gael, meanwhile, the young Patrick O’Donovan (pictured above) and Sligo’s Tony McLoughlin have come out against.

Indeed, some estimates have the number of TDs and Senators openly supporting Repeal at just half. This is not a great start for getting such a difficult referendum passed. Meanwhile, there is considerable resistance in FG and FF party grassroots against the 12 week availability, and these are the foot-soldiers we’d expect to see putting up posters and canvassing for Repeal.

In terms of leadership, we also have the completely changed position by Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin, and the fact that he did not inform his parliamentary party in advance about just how liberal his new stances was.

Indeed, Martin’s whole position, and its evolution, is still insufficiently explained by Martin who struggled under questioning by Brian Dowling on RTE radio’s This Week programme last Sunday. If Martin was asked, as he more or less was, ‘where exactly do you think life begins’, it is quite possible he couldn’t answer?

Or else, instead of offering a straight answer, he would dissemble and equivocate, for political purposes. I don’t mean that he has changed his position for political purposes, as some have suggested. 

Martin is an honourable and principled politician, who does not come to such a decision lightly, and if he really was a cynic he could have just hid in the long grass, timidly supported Repeal and waited for the Government to slip up. However, the reality is that he has gone for a liberal 12 week open abortion availability and he will not admit this fully and freely and cannot explain how he came to the decision.

Then we have the confused position of Simon Coveney, which however heartfelt and sincere, muddies the waters even further. Coveney does what he so often does on sensitive issues: he thinks aloud.

However, such opining has consequences, like with Irish Water (where he appeared to drop the ball on abolition of charges) or on Northern Ireland where his loose talk excites Unionists. Now on abortion, he is giving us how torturous conflicted position on abortion but it would have been better to have kept this private or revealed it more succintly later.

These FF and FG politicians are supposed to be out there fighting to get this over the line and it doesn’t look convincing.

By contrast, the Retain the Eighth campaign has been impressive, and especially in debates with pro Repeal politicians who do not seem to have the same conviction. Both David Quinn and Cora Sherlock, whatever one thinks of them, have been strong and persuasive and make good logical points, even if sometimes hard ones. But then this is their life’s work, and it is the more important of their many conservative causes. They will go to the battlefront on this.

abortion protest

The same could be said for their opponents, especially among younger women, but not for the pro-Repeal politicians. And in the actual Pro Choice movement there are still not enough heavy hitters or forceful personalties. But this may change, as it did in other referendums.

Incidentally, the unexpected strength of resistance to Repeal or at least to extending the law to full abortion amongst much of the public gives the lie to the old shibboleth that it is antiquated Catholic conservatism that is informing such resistance.

The Irish Catholic church is in serious retreat but a modern, cautious view of abortion endures in Ireland as it does internationally.

And yet the Government has been using this simplistic ‘old Ireland’ backdrop to sell its message, in speeches that have been surprisingly loose and patronising, given how long it had to prepare for this campaign.

Health Minister Simon Harris opened the campaign with an angry history lesson about Catholic Ireland and the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gave us a glib soundbite about ‘exporting out problems and importing our solution.’ But this is a crude summary that even Varadkar himself would have dismissed before, and indeed he once did (he will be reminded of this)

Of course, if the Oireachtas Committee had not gone for the 12 week abortion recommendation and stayed with the three conditions of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest there would not be such a tight contest and the Repeal cause might very well be home and dry. But the 12 week availability changes everything.

Having said that, younger voters, and especially women, may rebel against a long torturous debate and against the conservative political establishment and just put Repeal over the line. Either way, the issue and campaign could be a major spanner in the works for the Government, and could cause unexpected disruption of the political landscape.

Published in the Times, Irish edition, on 7 February 2018 

 

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