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Yet more on FF and abortion legislation July 19, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

doctorfive has some intriguing thoughts here on the inner dynamics of Fianna Fáil in the wake of the abortion legislation vote. And shows who voted with the legislation. A small band, but some interesting names in there. This dovetails to some extent with Back Room in the SBP argued that the real story is the FF revolt. And there’s something in that. It struck me as telling that so many voted against. Not much sign of a new open progressive FF there, and remember, this is a tiny parliamentary party these days, relative to their former size.

So Back Room argues that:

While Enda Kenny demonstrated authority in bringing most of his wavering backbenchers to heel, it was the other way around in Fianna Fáil. With almost three quarters of his Dáil party voting the other way, Micheál Martin looked like a leader in search of a party.

S/he continues:

The impression was not helped by members of his inner circle acting like someone had just shot their dog. This was not just pique at Fianna Fáil TDs expected to vote Tᨠhitting the Níl buttons instead. It was a fear that they had just messed up their best chance of changing how voters perceive them. They believed that this particular issue presented an even greater opportunity than the presidential election or fiscal treaty referendum to show that Fianna Fáil had moved on from the old way of doing business. They have a point, but Backroom has been around long enough to know that Fianna Fáil fortunes will be decided by more than mere gestures, no matter how well they play at focus groups.

I think that’s more or less accurate. Or more more than less. It seems unlikely that this will follow FF like an albatross. – well, it seemed unlikely until Senator Walsh’s intervention There’s simply too much other stuff to be dealt with, in terms of contemporary politics and their legacy. Moreover, as doctorfive also notes, the collective sigh of relief once the abortion legislation is through fully will be echoed on almost all sides and there’s no appetite to return to it (note that Pat Rabbitte has ruled out any actions for the life time of this government, which in real terms includes the next as well, and which lets him off the hook too come to think of it).

Martin apparently was in favour from the off of backing X legislation…

According to Backroom’s friends on the Fianna Fáil fourth floor, the party’s pollsters had told the leader some months back that backing the X case legislation would be an important milestone in Fianna Fáil’s revival. They were preaching to the converted. Backing this bill would not only accord with Martin’s mission to position Fianna Fáil as the constructive opposition party, it would also play well with urban female voters – a cohort the party must make some inroads with. His task was clear: move quickly and announce that Fianna Fáil was prepared to back X case legislation. Backroom understands that this strategy was only ever discussed with a handful of front bench members.

True. Backroom continues:

Team Martin, however, had not reckoned with the zeal of the party grassroots on this issue and their influence over local TDs and senators. Here lay a problem: Martin’s belief in empowering the membership via one member one vote is almost as great as his belief in constructive opposition. But on this particular issue, the two positions were bound to clash.

I don’t entirely disagree with that analysis, but there was very much a two way dynamic involved. Now I’ve only had limited and glancing acquaintance myself with a range of FF representatives but one thing that came through loud and clear was the – ahem – traditional views of many of same. And the idea that the Jim Walsh’s of this world – for example – would follow the leader in support of even the minimal current legislation was pure moonshine. Senator Walsh has some brutally strong opinions on these matters, as has been evidenced this week, and there are others too. And those whose opinions might be a little more, shall we say, malleable, weren’t going to throw hostages to fortune on an issue which was already causing ructions in Fine Gael, Labour – note the sudden concern amongst some of the latter’s former TDs (and to an extent in SF, albeit controlled to a much greater degree).

Interestingly, as Back Room relates, Martin kept pushing for full FF support for the legislation and only when the actuality of a split PP was obvious did he relent on a free vote.

Martin must have realised that the free vote would not just be exercised by those who opposed the bill from the start, but would also allow a swath of TDs, including the aforementioned O’Dea, to jump the fence and vote in a way that reflected the views of supporters back home. As one Fianna Fáil TD told Backroom: “The other TDs in my constituency are voting in favour. Why would I join them when my own people are urging me to oppose it?”

This political calculation, clearly influenced many in the party beyond the core anti-abortion representatives.

Martin is probably right that the majority of voters are not opposed to the bill, but his difficulty is that his party members – especially the activists – are in a different space. With just 33 Oireachtas members, he leads a small parliamentary party, yet many of its members perceive themselves as having only a limited say in party affairs. Key decisions are made by a clique of TDs around Martin, such as Billy Kelleher and Timmy Dooley, and senior party officials.

Here though is a straw in the wind…

The activists may be prepared to countenance supporting gay marriage as a way of convincing voters that they are not all troglodytes, but for the pro-lifers in the party, this was an issue too far – they were not prepared to give Martin carte blanche. Unfortunately, Team Martin took too long to recognise this. When the parliamentary party met to decide its approach to the published bill, Martin and his inner circle seemed genuinely surprised at the intensity of the opposition.

Rumour has it that FF may not allow a free vote on same-sex marriage, that it will expect its TDs and Senators to vote in favour of legislation allowing for same (and that only a small number of issues, all conveniently off the table from this point on are now considered appropriate for free votes). The above would seem to indicate that may not be as great an ask as abortion was. So, perhaps from Martin’s point of view it is win some lose some. Take the hit on abortion, in truth it’s not as if in supporting X it was pushing the boat out too far in any event, and then if Gilmore’s prediction of a referendum on the issue of same-sex marriage next year manifests itself then have the opportunity to present a more congenial face to an electorate that appears willing to wave that measure through.

It is even possible that, paradoxically, Walsh’s contribution could have given Martin some space already. Note the statement from him last night.

Separately, Mr Martin condemned the language used by some of his party’s Senators. “The fundamental purpose of this legislation is to protect the lives of mothers. I believe it is important that all sides in the debate show respect, compassion and avoid the use of emotive and provocative language,” Mr Martin said.“It is a source of regret that some contributions, including from within my own party, have fallen short of that standard.”

Sure, it’s not much, but he clearly was sufficiently emboldened, or left with no other choice, to assert some authority.

Yet, even if this comes to pass, as was put to me, this is (part of) the stuff of which political progress is meant to be made on pushing for a referendum in the future in order to broaden abortion provision in this state?


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