Sinn Féin seldom make too many tactical errors. Its leadership, not necessarily the one you see on the media, usually comes up with a formula to ensure that all eyes are kept on the prize of power, and all that goes with it. Dissenters are pulled into line or isolated.
Which begs the question whether their decision to take a hard line on the issue of the Repeal of the 8th amendment may have been a significant blunder. Unlike Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who have allowed a free vote in the Oireachtas, Sinn Féin elected representatives, including TDs Peadar Tóibín and Carol Nolan will face expulsion if they vote against the .party line in the Dáil.
Other prominent Sinn Féin elected representatives, members and supporters have also indicated their opposition. Former Derry MLA and author of the famous ballad in support of the republican prisoners on the H Block blanket protest Francie Brolly recently resigned from Sinn Féin over its support for abortion. Will members who take a similar stance, or who are actively involved in campaigning against be expected to speak in favour of, or to canvass for, abortion? Will they too face sanctions?
The key issue in all of this relates to the gestation limitations that will be placed on abortion. The Oireachtas Committee voted in favour of legalising abortion up to 12 weeks, but the Sinn Féin members abstained on the motion proposing this, which was carried. That was included in the report which they voted in favour of, so the abstention meant nothing.
Jonathan O’Brien, who once purported to be opposed to abortion, proposed an amendment to one motion that effectively supports the decriminalisation of abortion where it was procured “regardless of circumstances,” and that this be legislated for. As Senator Mullen pointed out the motion as amended allows for “no gestation limit.” O’Brien speaking on the report in the Dáil on January 18 declared that he was in favour of allowing abortion up to 12 weeks.
So despite the abstention for internal and media consumption, the Sinn Féin committee members had voted for 12 weeks before any Ard Fheis that was supposed to debate and decide on that. O’Brien had proceeded from being opposed to abortion to not only supporting the 12 weeks provision but tabling an amendment that would appear to allow for legislation to decriminalise abortion “regardless of circumstances.”
I know from my time in Leinster House that other TDs were opposed to abortion. All of them who were there when I was working in the place, with the exception of Peadar Tóibín, are now committed not only to supporting repeal of the 8th, but also in the light of Sinn Féin’s support for the Committee report, to abortion up to 12 weeks.
Perhaps some of them have been persuaded to change their minds through open debate, which is no shame, if honestly done. It would certainly be preferable to anyone voting for something they claimed to be opposed to because the “party” told them, under threat, to do so.
I am also reminded of one Senator who now professes to be “pro-choice” who attempted to have a staff member in his office disciplined, effectively wanting her to be sacked, because she had written a piece for a journal in a personal capacity expressing her support for abortion, as she is entitled to do. Such hypocritical go by the wall sneakiness does not surprise me, but it is worth recalling.
It is apparent now; from the Committee report, the comments on it by Varadkar and other leading members of every party in the Dáil, and the statement made by Simon Harris when introducing the referendum bill, that legislation will be framed to allow for abortion up to 12 weeks, should the referendum carry.
Sinn Féin had promised to hold a special Ard Fheis prior to the referendum to allow the membership to debate the 12 weeks limit, but now that is impossible for “logistical reasons.” Instead they are going to hold such a conference after the referendum. It will be all academic by then, as they have clearly made up their minds and if the referendum is passed they will issue another diktat, under threat of disciplinary action, in support of legislation setting gestation limits.
In the debate on the wording of the Bill on March 9, McDonald again welcomed the fact that the referendum would be held on the single issue of repeal rather than the exact circumstances under which it would be permitted. While she referred to the “debate” within the party as though it were something that might change her mind, O Broin let the cat out of the bag by saying that he and others would be persuading the delegates to an Ard Fheis to support a 12 week term.
Like the other parties in the Dáil, and this was clearly evident during the Committee hearings, Sinn Féin wants the referendum to be on the single issue of removing the 8th amendment because its leadership is afraid of what might happen if the actual terms under which abortion will be made available becomes part of the debate.
One suspects that the “logistical reasons” for not holding the Ard Fheis have to do similar motivations along with the evidence of increasing unease within the republican support base for such a proposal. Sinn Féin’s slump to 14% in a recent opinion poll despite the much heralded change of front stage leadership is probably not unrelated to that.
Of course they could have avoided all of that by allowing a free vote, but that is not in the nature of the beast. Dissent cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. No-one I have known in over 30 vears ever joined the republican movement because of their position on abortion.
Allowing a free vote, in reflection of the differences among republicans would also conflict with the self-perception of the ideological liberals who make up the public face of Sinn Féin and the vast majority of staffers. They are more concerned with impressing their mirror images in the other parties and among the NGO sector and media, than allowing democratic debate on the issue within Sinn Féin itself.
From a political perspective the enthusiastic support for abortion is also a part of trying to colonise what used to be the Labour constituency, especially in Dublin where the NGOs and media are still top heavy with people whose image of the Shinners was once of some dreadful Ralph C. Nesbitt character in a Celtic or Dublin jersey.
Now the Care Bears see Sinn Féin as being like them. They even get, like Jonathan Powell setting out how the IRA could be gotten rid of through the voice of Gerry Adams, to write key policies for them. As for the less exalted members and voters, they have never really had to worry about them. They will just go along with it all, or even be lied barefacedly to as did one prominent northern member who spoke trenchantly in favour of abortion at meetings in Dublin and then went home to tell republicans in his own area that there was no way he would support abortion. Voting for it was to be taken no more seriously than when he had told the same people that the IRA would never disband, that there would be no decommissioning, that Sinn Féin would never enter Stormont, and so on.
Had they had the cop on to allow a free vote Sinn Féin would have been able for another while to ride several horses at the one time, as they have successfully done – particularly on their attitudes to “austerity” north and south – in the recent past. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil realise that there is no party line on abortion; and that attempting to impose one would only lead to needless internal tensions.
Have Sinn Féin misjudged this one?
Sinn Féin to hold Ard Fheis on Abortion – After the Referendum!