Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin
Concerning the ‘seismic shift’ of Micheál Martin coming out as in favour of repealing the 8th Amendment, I’m a little surprised people aren’t seeing the stroke that’s being played here.
Discerning the flow of the tide – be it from opinion poll data, focus groups, a cold hard look at the marriage equality vote – Micheál Martin and the FF leadership have seen the writing on the wall and realised that all indicators say that repeal will carry in a referendum.
At its 2017 Árd Fheis, FF voted conclusively to take a pro-life stance on the issue of the 8th Amendment. That position has not changed.
Martin, in my opinion, is now working tactically in order to secure a least-worst-option salvage operation and continues to act in the interests of his party, his support base, and cumanns all of which have registered a majority interest in a pro-life stance.
One of the most cynical aspects of the play has been for the leader to claim that he is speaking in a personal capacity.
This is unfathomable in a party that adhere’s strongly to the power of the grassroots and the assertion of that power through decisions of the Árd Fheis.
Martin is playing the long game with a pro-life agenda and you can guarantee that the party faithful’s concerns are being assuaged in constituency clinics the country over this morning. ‘Trust Micheál, he knows what he’s doing…’
Accepting that they cannot win to ‘save the 8th’ in a referendum, FF are now trying to insert an option C into what had been until now a binary debate.
Their new play is that the legal vacuum created by the repeal of the 8th would cause legal uncertainty and thus, if we cannot save the 8th, we must amend it.
This concept has been floating around the discourse in pro-life circles for some time now; see certain moderate pro-lifers on twitter for examples of this kite having been flown. The underlying fallacy of the argument here is that the (de Valera authored) constitution operated perfectly well between 1937 and 1983 with no 8th amendment in it whatsoever.
The 1983 vote was one to provide for extraordinary restrictions on access to abortion services at home and abroad in the face of rapidly changing medical technologies and access to alternative jurisdictions.
The genius of Martin’s new gambit is that he does not have to win over the electorate, just the Oireachtas – and FF have a controlling stake in the Dáil at the moment – a fact they like to keep as quiet as possible about.
In all referenda, there can only be an A or B question put to the electorate. The Oireachtas, through the Cabinet, determine and sanction the wording of every referendum in consultation with the Attorney General.
One of those two options has to be, by definition, to retain the 8th Amendment in the Art. 40.3.3 of the Constitution. The second box will either be to remove the article entirely or to replace it. Micheál Martin’s position yesterday was not for repeal of the 8th but rather for option B on the ballot paper to be amendment of the 8th.
Such a move would guarantee that the people do not have the option of doing what the repeal campaign has advocated for all along; what the constitutional convention advocated for; and what a majority of cabinet (excepting our still silent Taoiseach) has indicated to be their preferred option.
If Micheál Martin’s gambit play’s off, FF can then work towards the drafting of an amendment which ensures that access to abortion in Ireland is as restrictive as they deem desirable while appearing to look liberal. Such compositional gymnastics are a Fianna Fáil speciality: viz Haughey’s ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’ on contraception back in 1979.
Confined to the safe and familiar territory of Leinster House and free from the rigours of real public debate, do not expect Micheál Martin’s ‘amend the 8th’ option to result in ‘free, safe, and legal’ abortion in Ireland. Expect instead applications to panels of medical experts, strict legal definitions on viability, and careful consideration and clauses on issues such as suicidal ideation.
Michaél Martin has rarely trumpeted the fact that he has had Fine Gael firmly in his grasp since the 2016 general election. All he has to do now is give a gentle tug on the rope and remind Dr Varadkar who is it that holds the power behind the throne.
If the wording of an amendment to the 8th amendment is not acceptable to FF, they can pull the plug on government in the morning – likely using some latent whistleblower scandal as a causus belli – and then we’ll be right back where we started from. Campaign funds squandered on a general election and little appetite for revisiting repeal any time soon.
Judging by the press reportage this master move in stroke politics has been swallowed hook line and sinker in many quarters with the media failing either to discern or to call out what has occurred.
It is particularly illuminating to see the Journal.ie’s article announcing Martin’s volte face where the video from Oireachtas TV cuts short of showing his clarification on amendment, instead cutting at the point where he says he favours repeal as if it was some sort of mic drop moment.
If, whenever this referendum is finally held, you find yourself staring at a ballot paper where the option for a clean and simple repeal of the 8th amendment does not appear, don’t say I didn’t warn you, and don’t forget about slippery Mick and his cunning trick.
Phryne Fisher is a Broadsheet reader.
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