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Thursday 8 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: New abortion debate may be a step too far for Joan Burton and Labour

Joan Burton
Joan Burton

Strike while the iron is hot. Flush with Labour's success in making same-sex marriage a reality, Joan Burton has started planning something even more ambitious.

The Tanaiste now wants to put abortion rights at the heart of her upcoming general election campaign - a high-risk, high-reward strategy that will alienate as many voters as it inspires.

Burton's timing is easy to understand. More than any other party, Labour deserves credit for putting gay marriage on the political agenda.

When their ex-leader Eamon Gilmore described it as "the civil rights issue of our generation", many TDs laughed at him - but the joyous scenes in Dublin Castle last Saturday proved he was absolutely right.

Less than 24 hours later, Burton made her move. On live television she announced that Labour's general election manifesto will include a clear commitment to repealing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution on abortion.

The Tanaiste also indicated that another referendum on the issue will be a pre-condition for any new coalition deal between her party and Fine Gael.

Even Labour's most passionate pro-choice advocates accept that Enda Kenny is not going to give them anything before election day. However, that does not prevent them from putting in the groundwork.

Senator Ivana Bacik will this week ask the Oireachtas Health Committee to start examining abortion again, presumably with a view to drafting new legislation that can be passed in the next Dail.

Why is Joan Burton pushing the boat out on this? Quite simply, every party needs a unique selling point and the Tanaiste thinks she has found hers.

On economic matters, Labour has usually come off second-best to Fine Gael - but on social issues they can justifiably claim to be the natural political home for liberal voters.

enthusiasm

Burton is also trying to take advantage of Ireland's new national mood. The same-sex marriage debate unleashed a wave of enthusiasm among young people, with thousands taking part in their first ever campaign.

At least some will have caught the bug forever and Joan hopes that a strong stance on abortion might encourage them to apply for Labour membership forms.

This, at least, is the theory. In practice, Burton may be about to learn that abortion is what Americans call the "third rail" of politics - very hard to grasp without blowing yourself up.

Promising to get rid of the Eighth Amendment is the easy bit. A much harder question is what laws Labour would introduce to fill the vacuum.

At that point, Burton will have to get specific about which abortions she thinks are morally acceptable and which aren't - something that is virtually impossible to do without offending huge swathes of the Irish electorate.

When Ireland was shocked by the death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012, Labour took a strong moral stance. The party remained united throughout the controversial Protection of Life During Pregnancy bill, even as Fine Gael was losing high-profile TDs like Lucinda Creighton.

Beneath the surface, however, Burton's team has its own divisions on this issue - and she will be taking a major political risk by opening them up to public view.

Some Labour representatives (probably including the leader herself) just want termination rights for the 'hard cases' of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. Others such as Ivana Bacik believe it is a woman's right to choose, full stop.

Even if Burton can resolve these differences, persuading Enda Kenny to sign on for another abortion referendum will be no easy task. Despite the euphoric scenes around Dublin on Saturday night, it must be remembered that almost 40pc of Irish voters gave a thumbs down to gay marriage.

In other words, the social conservative lobby is by no means finished yet - and Fine Gael wants another fight with those people like it wants a hole in the head.

With Labour still flatlining at 7pc in opinion polls, Joan Burton is entitled to take a few risks. Wading back into the swamp of Ireland's abortion laws, however, may well be a risk too far.

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