Will Repealing Ireland’s Abortion Laws Be Enda Kenny’s Legacy?

Enda Kenny is the accidental Taoiseach. His party, Fine Gael, was never the natural party of government. Before becoming Taoiseach, the highest office he held was minister for tourism in John Bruton’s administration.  In age of youthful leaders, whether it be David Cameron or Barack Obama, Kenny - a TD since 1975 - only assumed the mantle of leadership after a twenty seven years in the Dáil Éireann when his party was at its lowest ebb. Defeated in 2007 by Bertie Ahern, he was for nine years an opposition leader and only won office in 2011 because of the financial crash.

In February he flunked an easy election, in a growing economy, to lose his party seats on a 10% swing. He faces plots from his backbenchers who want him out of government before the end of the year. He is derided by the Irish media as a “lucky general”, hesitant in public and not given to extravagant gestures.

As with any easy epithet, it is not the full story. Political generals make their own luck. And Kenny is a far more complex figure that he is given credit for. Right now he faces one of his greatest battles.

Last weekend it was estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 pro-choice activists gathered in Dublin despite the rain and a bus strike to put pressure on the government to abolish the constitution’s eighth amendment which protects a foetus’ “right to life”.  They were trade unionists, women, men, individuals, families, gay, straight, old and young. The largest demographic was undeniably young people but they were all actually just Irish. Their chant was “Repeal the Eighth”; the women among them shouted, “My body. My choice.”

Kenny has to decide. If you wish, he has a choice

Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, enshrined in its constitution since 1983, with even foetal abnormality or cases of rape and incest providing no legal cover for women to chose whether or not to continue a pregnancy. The country faces pressure from not just activists but also George Soros’ well-funded Open Society Foundations.

The United Nations is exerting pressure as well: a damning report  found that prohibition of abortion services violated  human rights, causing "intense physical and mental suffering". At least fourteen countries, including EU partners such as Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, are pressing the state to legalise abortion. It is not an issue which they are going to let up on, fuelled by the fact that it is clearly a live political issue. There are minimum demands but also pressure for decriminalisation. Repealing the amendment is the only way to change the restrictions. This means a national plebiscite.

Kenny has to decide. If you wish, he has a choice. Is he an accident of history or can he play a decisive role in the country’s politics to drag it willingly, if maybe painfully, beyond the inheritance that was its awkward break with the United Kingdom. Can he take on the powerful “pro-life” lobby? It was Kenny’s coalition government which worked to resolve the X Case, facing down the “pro-life” lobby as it did so. There was only political cost to him, not reward and it won him few friends on either side of the debate.

His language is typically tempered but that does not mean he will do nothing or dodge the issue. Opinion has shifted in the last decade but is still balanced. Overwhelming majorities are in favour of allowing abortion when the pregnancy was as the result of rape or incest or there is a fatal foetal abnormality, disability or when the pregnant woman has suicidal feelings. When asked whether the Eighth Amendment should be repealed from the constitution, 48% were in favour. This does not mean unrestricted or safe access to abortion though. There is a middle that can be won.

Kenny’s pragmatism might not win him support among pro-choice activists  - two Irish women recently live tweeted their journey to the UK for an abortion - but it could help win popular opinion. He is a cautious politician but can do more than chose to convene a people’s assembly (the government’s official position). He can turn his promise to review abortion laws into a campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment and ensure any replacement puts women’s rights at its centre.

In 2015 Ireland defied its Catholic image by voting decisively in favour of Equal Marriage, becoming the first country to enact gay marriage by popular vote. All but one county supported the move. The vote was decisive. Like 2015, the decision could become a model for other Catholic countries to relax their own laws. Like 2015, it could be one further step towards the social democratic modernity for which Ireland prides itself.

The thing about being underestimated is that it becomes easy to exceed expectations. Whether he stays in office for a full-term, ends up brutally defenestrated or his minority government collapses, taking the country towards a humane, and non-sectarian, approach to abortion is not a bad legacy for a man who was never meant lead.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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