Unfinished business for the Dáil

Nothing is served by belittling Catholicism, says Fr Andrew McMahon

Whether or not one is especially concerned with the future of Seanad Éireann, the referendum result of last weekend is undoubtedly timely and significant.This particular exercise in democracy provided Irish citizens with an opportunity to both derail the plans of their coalition Government and to debunk the claims of opinion polls which major media groups had been promoting. The referendum confirmed, not surprisingly, that Enda Kenny’s feel for the priorities and attitudes of Irish people is not nearly as reliable as he would like to suggest and that, when allowed the chance to do so, the people have no difficulty thwarting what their political and media classes seek to impress upon them to be a fait accompli. For many citizens who consider protecting the life of the unborn much more fundamental than safeguarding the life of the Seanad, last weekend’s referendum will serve to deepen their sense of injustice at how this same Government rode roughshod over their sensitivities and concerns just three months ago, forcing through its controversial legislation on that subject by very questionable means.

Lingering questions

It was interesting to observe members of a somewhat chastened Government coming forward over recent days to admit that reform of the upper house – previously unthinkable – was now, after all, a feasible project and that a further referendum may even be contemplated in order for it to happen. It would surely be just as appropriate for the Irish Government and its parliamentarians to take time to seriously consider the many lingering questions surrounding the credibility of that peculiar piece of business they executed in July, before scurrying off for their annual summer holiday. With something as significant as legislation facilitating abortion being pushed through parliament on the brink of a lengthy recess, a fuller reflection on the entire affair would now be very fitting.  It could be usefully embraced as a natural extension of the analysis which the Government accepts it has been obliged to undertake, now that it’s most recent ‘reform’ initiative has been jettisoned by the democratic process.


Speaking of the desirability of a late-night sitting on July 10, to conclude the Dáil’s handling of his abortion legislation, the Taoiseach asserted “I’m going to get rid of it this evening”. These few blunt words perhaps revealed more about the purpose and potential of his Bill than the Taoiseach had ever been prepared to publicly admit. They reflected, too, the unease which even Enda Kenny must have felt in presiding over of one of the less noble episodes in the Irish Republic’s political life. In order ‘to get rid of it’ Mr Kenny, of course, forbade a free vote in the house and dispensed with a convention observed in so many democracies, respecting the conscience of individual parliamentarians on sensitive questions like abortion.

Even when it became obvious that the Government would see its legislation through the house comfortably, the Taoiseach’s insistence on withdrawing the whip from the few who dissented appeared more to do with the desire to intimidate, and deter honest debate, than any serious requirements of parliamentary arithmetic.


The Dáil of July 10, as it turned out, sat long through the night and well into the morning, and the conditions created for the debate have been called into question in various quarters. The indiscretions of certain TDs in the chamber drew righteous indignation from Irish media outlets. It might be surmised that this was, in reality, a welcome distraction from the more critical questions a responsible media might have pursued had it chosen to properly interrogate the legislation before the Dáil that night and the morality of the manner in which the Government had chosen to further it.

Its hurried closure reflected, in truth, an abortion campaign which never really had much credibility about it. The Taoiseach’s attempts to play the statesman, driven in equal measure by his obligations under the Constitution and his regard for the will of the Irish people, never really convinced.

Enda Kenny knew as well as anyone that when the Irish people as a whole had been given the opportunity to address the possibility of abortion provision in the context of their Constitution, they had opposed it. The Government sought refuge in the Supreme Court decision of 1992. This cut little ice, however, with the pro-life population, who had always viewed its ruling with suspicion. Ireland’s Catholic archbishops gave voice to these concerns in their statement of December 2012:  “The decision of the Supreme Court in the X case unilaterally overturned the clear pro-life intent of the people of Ireland as expressed in Article 40.3.3 of our Constitution. To legislate on the basis of such a flawed judgement would be both tragic and unnecessary.”

 The Taoiseach’s response to the bishops was to ignore the substance of what they had to say and appeal to some ostensibly higher sense of duty. Mr Kenny would protest his apparent obligations to the Constitution, which he curiously labelled “his book”.  In May of this year, he elaborated further: “My book is the Constitution and the Constitution is determined by the people. We live in a republic and I have a responsibility as head of Government to legislate in respect of what the people’s wishes are.” 

Irish hierarchy

How ‘the people’s wishes’ were to be determined, the Taoiseach never cared to specify.  Rather than challenge him in respect of these, however, journalists were more than happy to slavishly report his remarks and sought to portray them as a rebuke to the Irish hierarchy. By ignoring the reality that the Irish electorate – not their bishops – had successfully proposed and passed their Constitution’s 8th Amendment, the media assisted Enda Kenny in concealing the fact that he was effectively spurning the expressed wishes of the Irish people under the very guise of purporting to represent them.

Journalists, however, had good reason to offer the Taoiseach cover, for the campaign to legalise abortion upon which his Government embarked late last year had effectively been their initiative. Relying on a story launched by The Irish Times in mid-November, the media sought to exploit the tragic death of Savita Halapannavar a fortnight earlier and to widely disseminate confusing versions of the circumstances surrounding it.  The Government, in turn, brought forward its Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill – a deceptively titled proposal which would accommodate the deliberate taking of the life of the unborn while claiming to do no such thing. As spokesperson for the Pro-Life Campaign, Caroline Simons, put it “talk of the legislation being life-saving” was “simply dishonest”.


Opponents of abortion could identify further dishonesty. They pointed to the fact that despite the allegedly ‘binding’ Supreme Court judgment having been delivered in 1992, and the much-quoted ruling of the European Court of Human Rights for clarification on Ireland’s position coming in 2010, Mr Kenny had not notified the electorate of any perceived obligation to legislate for abortion until now. The general election campaign of 2011 had afforded him the ideal opportunity. As it happened, Fine Gael officials actually sought to assure pro-life organisations, at that time, that the party’s opposition to legalising abortion in Ireland remained steadfast.   

The abortion campaign would continue in the misleading fashion in which it had begun, with significant challenges to the draft proposals being persistently ignored. A vote by delegates at the Irish Medical Council’s conference in April rejected calls for the provision of abortion legislation.

Over a hundred Irish psychiatrists, later that month, signed a statement condemning the inclusion of suicidal ideation within the proposals. They warned that abortion as an appropriate treatment for the threat of suicide had “no basis in medical evidence”. Speaking on their behalf, Dr Bernie McCabe of Navan Hospital advised that rather than be a support to those inclined to suicide because of pregnancy, abortion might in reality “be harmful to women”. The Master of Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital (Ireland’s “Maternity Hospital of the Year”, 2013) expressed concern, meanwhile, that the Bill would be “asking obstetricians to get involved in the termination of pregnancy when there is little evidence to show that it is an appropriate intervention”. Hearings held by the Oireachtas, in respect of the proposed legislation, received this kind of testimony from various representatives.

A further 55 doctors wrote to the Irish Independent in May opposing the provision for suicidality and reported that many of them had practised “in jurisdictions where such legislation was the first step towards what has become abortion on demand”. They also reiterated a long-standing criticism of the Irish Supreme Court’s behaviour in the 1992 X case, in appearing to reach a conclusion in respect of the question of suicide without having recourse to credible psychiatric evidence.  


The Taoiseach, meanwhile, appeared unfazed by it all. With a safe parliamentary majority and the threat of exclusion for defectors, he seemed to consider it unnecessary to engage with the concerns emerging from so many authoritative sources. His senior Government colleagues appeared to follow his lead. Mr Kenny would repeat a few highly questionable sound bites, which his staff had evidently devised for him, ranging from claims that his bill was “about saving lives and not ending them” to the quite extraordinary suggestion that what was being proposed “obviously doesn’t change the legislation on abortion”.

When he did come to acknowledge to parliament the strong opposition his legislation had incurred the Taoiseach, interestingly, did not cite any of the above examples, but focused rather on the alleged activities of a certain section of pro-life enthusiasts. Inevitably enough, it was the section which could be more easily portrayed as extreme in their approach.  Scapulars, medals and other items of devotion had apparently been bombarding Mr Kenny, according to his remarks to the Dáil on June 12, along with plastic foetuses, letters written in blood and telephone calls “all over the system”. 

Media’s strategy

The highlighting of these examples – and the ignoring of others – allowed the Taoiseach to further a misleading impression that opposition to his legislation was not coming from wide-ranging and well-reasoned sources, but from a narrow base, with confessional as opposed to social, psychological, medical or moral concerns. Furthermore, as the Taoiseach and his advisors knew only too well, such examples would play perfectly into the media’s strategy of stereotyping opponents of abortion in just this way.

Back at The Irish Times Miriam Lord reported, in a most solemn tone, how  “a Taoiseach stood in the Dáil chamber and called out the despicable behaviour of a small section of Irish society that deem it acceptable to threaten and intimidate elected representatives who do not cleave to their world view”. Irish Examiner political correspondent Mary Regan also read Mr Kenny loud and clear and enthused to her readers at how the Taoiseach’s remarks “served to label opponents of the legislation as abusive and irrational”. (Can leading staff in the national press not even pretend to be objective?)  While Enda Kenny did acknowledge the perception of potentially offensive tactics on the part of “both sides” in the abortion campaign, the confining of his illustrations to anti-abortion activism only ensured that these were the images which registered in the public imagination and enabled one side in the debate to be unfairly demonised.

By identifying protest, moreover, with what he sought to characterise as a particular kind of Catholic piety, the Taoiseach helped divert attention from the extensive opposition his bill had encountered within many other constituencies. 


It also allowed Mr Kenny contrive a context, on the same occasion, for the wholly unnecessary publicising of his perceived distinction between being a Catholic and being Taoiseach. Someone needs to explain to Enda Kenny, and those close to him, that the causes of genuine republicanism or pluralism within Ireland are not furthered by the dragging of Catholicism onto to the floor of parliament largely, it seems, for the purposes of misrepresenting or belittling it. 

Clearly displeased, at the same time, by the unwillingness of a Catholic archbishop to share a platform with him at Boston College’s annual commencement ceremony and the publicity surrounding this, the Taoiseach decided to use that occasion to emphasise the importance he apparently does attach to ‘faith’ in public service. He told the college’s graduates that among them were “men and women who will go on to be leaders of corporations, communities, countries”. In carrying out the demands of such leadership, Mr Kenny assured them, “your God, your personal faith, will sustain you. Keep them close and you will never face your public decisions, your challenges, your difficulties, alone”.  


Should the Taoiseach have occasion to further advise the youth of other lands on the relationship between faith and leadership he surely should illustrate, in the interests of clarity, its outworking in the political culture he promotes back home. He could draw, as a start, upon no better example than the experiences of Lucinda Creighton TD. 

Like Mr Kenny, faith appears to matter to Ms Creighton.  But her God seems to have persuaded Ms Creighton not to act against conscience for reasons of personal or political convenience. When a moment of decision was recently forced upon her, therefore, the deputy believed she had no option but oppose the introduction of abortion to Ireland. Many thought her an example of integrity in public life, including some who did not personally share her views.  How did Ms Creighton’s leader respond?  He fired her from office, before the day was over.