Education Minister Richard Bruton speaking on RTÉ Radio One at lunchtime
Audrey Carville, on RTÉ’s News At One, interviewed Minister for Education Richard Bruton earlier today.
The interview followed an earlier report by Conor McMorrow which included exchanges between Independents 4 Change TD Clare Daly and Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the Dáil this morning, ahead of tomorrow’s vote on Independents 4 Change TD Mick Wallace’s bill on fatal foetal abnormalities.
During her speech, Ms Daly said:
“You hide behind the advice of the Attorney General, advice we haven’t seen, advice which is substantially at variance with the advice of other Attorney Generals and disputed by a whole array of legal experts. Taoiseach, my question to you is: who do you think you are? That you believe that you can allow the continued violation of human rights. The constitution can never be used to deal with this. If you haven’t go the leadership or the guts to do it yourself, will you stop using your position to block the courts or the people from dealing with this.”
During the interview…
Audrey Carville: “Just, following on there from those exchanges [between Ms Daly and Mr Kenny], Clare Daly says your government, and others, have been repeatedly told by the UN and others that you’re violating women’s human rights. Is that acceptable to you?”
Richard Bruton: “No, it’s certainly not. I think the situation though is three times attempts have been made to change the Constitution in this area and three times they failed. Now they’re on different issues but it clearly shows that constitutional change needs careful preparation and that’s what the Citizens’ Assembly is designed to do. Now in the context of Deputy Wallace’s bill, the medical advise has been absolutely stark, that this bill would be of no value to mothers or to doctors who would be faced with the sort of difficult situation that Clare Daly described. The Attorney General’s view is also clear, that this bill conflicts with the constitution. So we are driven back to the situation that if we want change, we have to create an environment where the people can reflect on the change that’s needed and make a decision in due course in a referendum, that’s the only way which you can change a constitution which provides a protection, at present, for the unborn with due regard to the life of the mother.”
Carville: “Indeed, so why not just call the referendum? Everything else is a delaying tactic.”
Bruton: “That’s not the case. I mean, as I say, efforts have been made in the past to change the constitution and have failed and I think that experience that we have seen for example, in dealing with this issue when we were simply trying to legislate, as you know, for the Life in Pregnancy Bill in the last session, that the work of having a Citizens’ Assembly reflect or hearings, to reflect on the content and what changes were about was really important to getting the degree of support that was possible. This is really complicated when you go to the people. And people will have to be able to see when they are faced with a vote, what it is they’re voting on, what are the implications of the changes that are being proposed to them. And that will take careful teasing out. There are many cases that will have to be teased out. Fatal foetal abnormality and other situations like rape and incest where very difficult circumstances are consulted…”
Listen back in full here
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former Tanaiste Mary Harney
In the Irish Times on September 11, 1999…
The newspaper’s then chief political correspondent Denis Coghlan wrote:
Publication of a Government Green Paper on abortion has reopened divisive debate and raised the prospect of serious friction between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. In 1992 Albert Reynolds sought to roll back the Supreme Court judgment in the X case and dared Dessie O’Malley to risk a general election on the issue. This time, Bertie Ahern seems willing to face down Mary Harney.
Of course, we don’t know precisely what the Taoiseach has in mind. And he is unlikely to tell us in the short term. But the pre-election commitment he gave to the Irish Catholic in 1997 appears to lean towards a restriction of the X case judgment or a legislative restatement of the prohibition on abortion.
But nothing is static in politics, and the commitment given by the Fianna Fail leader in opposition could crumble in the face of internal and external pressures. The only certainty at this stage is that Mr Ahern and his backbenchers are the main comfort-providers to the anti-abortion lobby and are anxious to retain its support.
The Progressive Democrats are doing what they did in 1992: reluctantly going along with a process they do not relish.
On the first occasion, the collapse of the coalition government allowed Mr O’Malley to advocate legislation to deal with the implications of the X case, rather than the constitutional referendum put forward by Mr Reynolds. And there is no indication that party policy has changed under the Tanaiste.
Reaching a consensus on this issue within Cabinet appears as remote as the possibility of Brian Lenihan and his all-party Committee of the Constitution producing an agreed set of recommendations.
For the main Opposition parties are still firmly entrenched in the positions they took up in 1997, when Mr Ahern resurrected abortion as an election issue.
Yesterday Alan Shatter of Fine Gael dutifully reiterated the position adopted by John Bruton when he was Taoiseach. The party was opposed to a referendum, he said, because no constitutional wording could fully and properly address this difficult area.
And they were concerned that any legislation would have the opposite effect to that intended, when applied in practice or interpreted by the courts.
Rather than embark on another referendum, Mr Shatter said, the Government should expand counselling services for women in crisis pregnancies and reform the adoption laws and services so that adoption would be seen as a preferred alternative to abortion.
Ruairi Quinn took a similar line. The way to reduce the number ofabortions among Irish women was to reduce the number of crisis pregnancies through education on sexuality, personal responsibility and access to contraception.
As for the deliberations of the all-party Committee on the Constitution, Mr Quinn felt it was unlikely to come to a different conclusion from that reached by the Expert Committee on the Constitution in 1995.
That approach would require giving legislative effect to the Supreme Court judgment in the X case, and was the position favoured by the Labour Party.
The Government sub-committee that produced the Green Paper – Brian Cowen, Mary O’Rourke, John O’Donoghue, Michael McDowell and Liz O’Donnell – took the five recommendations of the expert committee and expanded them to seven.
Four of the recommendations were common: the insertion of an absolute ban on abortion in the Constitution; to legislate for the X case; to restrict the terms of the X case’ and to return to the pre-1983 position.
The fifth recommendation from the expert committee suggested amending Article 40.3.3 so as to legalise abortion in constitutionally defined circumstances.
This was reworked into two options by the Government sub-committee: amend the Constitution so as to restrict application of the X case, and retain the “status quo” with a legislative restatement of the prohibition on abortion.
Finally, the sub-committee suggested that abortion might be permitted on grounds beyond those specified in the X case.
The last referendum on abortion, in 1992, clarified one issue. A solid 35 per cent of the electorate opposed giving women the right to travel and information on abortion.
It was that constituency Mr Ahern courted as Fianna Fail’s new leader in 1995 when he allowed his backbenchers off the leash to oppose Michael Noonan’s legislation giving effect to the electorate’s decisions to permit travel and abortion information.
Having established his anti-abortion credentials, Mr Ahern went on to cultivate that constituency by establishing an expert group on abortion within Fianna Fail.
Two years later he promised a referendum and legislation in the run-up to the general election of 1997.
At the time, his announcement went down like a lead balloon with the Progressive Democrats.
More than two years after those promises were made, the public is no wiser about what precisely the Taoiseach has in mind.
An early notion about utilising Article 27 of the Constitution has been dropped. The status of a commitment to draft the heads of legislation that would be put to the people – as happened in the divorce referendum – is unclear.
The Taoiseach now appears to be taking cover behind the Oireachtas committee and collective Cabinet responsibility.
It is a delicate stage in the exercise. The next step will involve open-ended consideration by the all-party committee on the Constitution. If a miracle happens and agreement is reached there on a way forward, the matter will come back to the Government. There could then be further consultations, a White Paper and a referendum/legislation.
It should come as no surprise that in spite of pressure from the Independent TDs, Mildred Fox and Harry Blaney, few Ministers expect a referendum to be held in the lifetime of this Government.
But anti-abortion groups are determined to pressurise the Government and Fianna Fail backbenchers into completing the process by next summer.
They have a mountain to climb. Resistance to an outright constitutional ban on abortion is widespread within the political system. Mr Ahern may be anxious to retain their support in advance of the next general election.
But he may be neither willing nor able to deliver their demands.
Plus ça change.
Pic: Richard Bruton