Abortion debate will test Enda’s leadership over his backbenchers to the max

My Evening Herald column from tonight’s newspaper


In American politics they refer to a policy issue that is so controversial or highly charged that it is dangerous for any politician to dare touch it as a”third rail” issue. Third rail being a reference to the electrified third rail of a metro or train system.

Leaders’ questions….. or, questions for a leader?

As we have recently seen both here and in the US, abortion is just such a classic third rail issue.

The last thing the Taoiseach and his Ministers want right now is a divisive argument within the Fine Gael parliamentary party. The party leadership is determined to quell the growing unrest.

Over the past few days we have seen and heard a series of backbench Fine Gael TDs coming out to state their own views on what should be in and what should not be in the legislation the government must produce to comply with the European Court of Human Rights judgment.

But will Enda Kenny’s tough words from Cardiff yesterday, telling these TDs that they must back whatever legislation the government produces be enough to keep them in line?

Is this the Taoiseach being a strong and determined leader or it is him doing an impression of what he thinks a strong leader should look like?

At a parliamentary party meeting Last July it was reported that anywhere up to 15 TDs had put the Taoiseach on notice that they would oppose legislation that would pave the way for abortion.

More importantly, in the context of the current situation they sought assurances from Kenny that the findings of the expert group on abortion would be discussed with them before they were brought to Cabinet.

While they did not get that assurance, they will not be happy to see the Government adopt a position without proper consultation with them.

In fairness, the Taoiseach can argue that the tragic events of recent weeks have hurried matters along and robbed him and them of the time and space in which to consider the expert group’s findings.

But will this sizeable group of back benchers be calmed and silenced so easily.

The timing could not be worse with one of the toughest budgets this government is going to have to introduce barely a week away.

Yes, the government has a big majority, but it cannot afford to lose too many overboard. So far Fine Gael has lost one TD, over Roscommon hospital. Those this pales in comparison to the four TDs that Labour has lost, included two former Junior Ministers.

Is this really the best of times for a Taoiseach to be publicly warning TDs that they will be expected to vote the right way or lose the whip? It is hard to argue that your back benchers should be using the parliamentary party room to air their views in private when you deliver that rebuke yourself very publicly.

This is the second time, in just over a week, that we have seen the Taoiseach resort to such megaphone diplomacy. Last week it was his ill judged and, frankly, insensitive public call on Praveen Halappanavar to meet with the Chairman of the inquiry into his wife’s death delivered on the floor of the Dáil.

As we saw that call was particularly ineffective as Mr Halappanavar graciously, but firmly, resisted Enda Kenny’s entreaties to back down.

Will his call this week to his back benchers be any more effective? Only if it is backed up with direct contacts and clear communications from the Whip’s office.

Backbenchers do not like being taken for granted, especially when they feel the governments plans and ideas run contrary to those of their own grassroots. Enda Kenny needs to remember that real leadership is about more than just being seen to be in charge, it is about convincing people they are doing the right, not just telling them to do it.

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