Last week, Carol Nolan gave an electrifying speech in the Dáil opposing the abortion bill, where she said that “many good men and women in this very house are being bullied into fear, silence and obedience” and that a “fear of not being reselected by party leaders” was effectively censoring pro-life politicians.
The Offaly TD is absolutely correct. There is no free vote on abortion in Fianna Fáíl or Fine Gael.
The reality is that TDs in both parties are being bullied by leadership, who are warning that there will be serious repercussions for anyone who votes against the legislation proposed by Simon Harris – a piece of legislation which will bring one of the most liberal abortion regimes in Europe to Ireland.
Now, the party leaders and many of the faithful will, of course, insist that this is not true.
In January, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin came out in favour of legalising abortion, despite a vote at the party’s Ard Fheis indicating 90% of the membership opposed repealing the 8th amendment, and a significant majority of the parliamentary party opposing abortion.
However, he claimed that TDs in his party would have a free vote on abortion.
"In advance of the Ard Fheis, I made it clear that it was an issue of conscience for members of the party,” he told RTE’s Morning Ireland. “The idea of the individual free vote has taken route.... we've reached a level of discussion where TDs can have their say and vote in accordance with their conscience.”
Similarly, Leo Varadkar announced after the referendum that Fine Gael would allow a free vote on the legislation.
This is all bunkum.
What is actually happening is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs are being pressurised into voting against their conscience on this bill, and the bullying started, not after the referendum, but long before the vote took place at all.
The party leadership knew that voters had been persuaded by the media spin on the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, and they started meeting TDs one-on-one to tell them that the referendum would pass, and that anyone who wasn’t with them on this issue would be out of favour.
TDs knew what that meant. They might not be reselected. Candidates might be parachuted in to run against them. They wouldn’t get the sort of party backing they needed when it came to the next election.
That sort of pressure and intimidation is the very opposite of a free vote. It is instead, as Carol Nolan put it, a culture of “bullying people into fear, silence and obedience”.
It’s ironic isn’t it that freedom of choice is out the window if you want to oppose or even limit abortion?
A handful of spineless Fianna Fáil representatives, such as Kildare TD James Lawless and Dublin Councillor Paul McAuliffe, jumped ship before the vote, coming out in favour of a Yes vote despite their previous pro-life declarations.
Then, after the referendum, the pressure increased.
Fianna Fáil TDs were told that they could only put forward amendments through the (pro-abortion) Health spokesperson, Stephen Donnelly. The duplicity of the Fianna Fáil front bench position, and the con job it is pulling on its membership, was underscored at the recent cross-party briefing with Minister Harris, where Deputy Donnelly did not offer a single word in support for those within his (current) Parliamentary Party who had serious reservations about the proposed Bill. He did not seek the remotest assurance that these members would be listened to.
Nothing in his contribution to that briefing even hinted at the fact that he was aware of the massive divisions within the grass roots membership of Fianna Fáil."
TDs were also told that they needed to adopt the party leadership line which claimed that the vote to repeal the 8th meant that the people had spoken and that the abortion bill must be supported.
More bunkum. As both the High Court and the Referendum Commission have pointed out, the people voted to remove the 8th amendment, they did not vote for any particular piece of legislation.
It would now appear, however, that some TDs are unwilling to allow the farce to continue.
Peter Fitzpatrick TD resigned from Fine Gael earlier this month, stating that he was isolated in the party because of his pro-life views. He will run as an independent in the next election.
And Mark McSharry of Fianna Fáil says he will not vote for the abortion bill because he fears it will allow for abortion on demand, which of course it does.
At a recent parliamentary party meeting, a number of pro-life TDs and senators claimed they were being silenced by the Fianna Fáil party hierarchy, according to the Irish Examiner.
As Carol Nolan said in the Dáil: “so much for freedom, equality, choice and compassion”.
The pretence of allowing a free vote on abortion while actually strong-arming pro-life TDs may be starting to unravel. In the meantime it is important that that pretence is seen for what it actually is.