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Monday 26 September 2016

U-turn for Kenny as Alliance TDs claim abortion vote victory

Independent Alliance TDs Sean Canney, John Halligan, Shane Ross and Finian McGrath at Government Buildings yesterday
Independent Alliance TDs Sean Canney, John Halligan, Shane Ross and Finian McGrath at Government Buildings yesterday

Independent ministers are claiming victory after Taoiseach Enda Kenny caved to their demands for a free vote on abortion.

This is despite the Attorney General and the Chief Medical Officer deeming the bill, tabled by Wexford TD Mick Wallace, to be unconstitutional.

Just days after insisting ministers must adhere to "collective Cabinet responsibility", Mr Kenny has performed an embarrassing U-turn and is now prepared to allow the Independent Alliance a free vote.

The move will see Cabinet members Shane Ross and Finian McGrath, as well as junior minister John Halligan, vote in favour of a bill that proposes to allow terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Conflict

This will put them in direct conflict with the AG Maire Whelan, who has insisted the bill is at odds with the constitution.

In contrast to the move by the Independent Alliance ministers, the rest of Cabinet will vote against the legislation when it comes before the Dail on Thursday.

Politically, the scenario is deeply damaging for the partnership government.

It will be seen as undermining the position of the AG, who has once again found herself under public scrutiny.

During a dramatic day, Transport Minister and Independent Alliance member Shane Ross told Morning Ireland yesterday that his group was demanding a free vote.

But just hours later, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar warned that any such move would set a "difficult precedent" for ministers.

Fine Gael ministers such as Michael Noonan and Simon Coveney moved to play down the significance of the Cabinet rift, insisting it will not destablise the Government.

Shortly before 3pm, an official from the Taoiseach's office is understood to have phoned Mr Ross and informed him he and his colleagues will be allowed a free vote.

The issue, which has caused deep tensions between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance, is on today's Cabinet agenda.

It's expected the Cabinet will not take a position on the bill, despite the AG's advice, meaning so-called "collective Cabinet responsibility" cannot be technically breached.

One Independent Alliance source last night described the move by Mr Kenny as a "climbdown".

"We were expecting a big row over the issue at Cabinet, but it's now effectively been defused," the source said.

Mr Wallace's bill mirrors a bill previously tabled by Dublin Fingal TD Clare Daly, which was also deemed unconstitutional.

The bill proposes that women should be allowed to have a termination, where both a perinatologist and an obstetrician deem the pregnancy to be non-viable.

Speaking at the North South Ministerial Forum at Dublin Castle yesterday, Mr Kenny insisted that the party whip system only applied to members of political parties. He said there were five ministers in all who were not members of Fine Gael and the party whip, as such, did not apply to them.

But he gave no signal that he was softening his insistence that the Government vote together and reject Deputy Mick Wallace's bill allowing for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Appropriate

Mr Kenny reiterated the process of a Citizens' Forum to be set up in October, reporting back to the Oireachtas where TDs would have a "free vote" without party whip constraints.

He stressed that this process would consider the eventuality which Mr Wallace was trying to cover.

The Taoiseach said the issue would again be discussed at today's Cabinet meeting.

"I adjourned conversation on the matter at Cabinet last week - we will resume that discussion tomorrow," Mr Kenny said.

Asked if it was appropriate for independent ministers to disregard the Attorney General's advice, Mr Kenny said: "I think it's appropriate the Cabinet has an opportunity to resume its discussions and we'll do that tomorrow."

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