The last few weeks have been difficult ones for many of Fianna Fáil’s representatives, members and supporters.
It would long since have been clear to them that their party leader was not going to faithfully represent their expressed views in the national debate surrounding the upcoming abortion referendum.
However, few could have predicted the extent to which Micheál Martin was preparing to demonstrate his utter contempt for their values, and his enthusiastic support for legalising abortion in Ireland.
Having concealed his true intentions from his party colleagues, Martin decided to steal a march on his opposing number in Fine Gael, grab the media’s attention and nail his colours to the Repeal mast.
In so doing he deployed all the weapons in his usual political arsenal, from misrepresentation to mischaracterisation, from non-sequiturs to double-speak.
“It is untrue to say the issue before us is whether there will be abortion in Ireland. The Eighth Amendment does not mean that Ireland is a country without abortion,” he told the Dáil. “Retaining the Eighth Amendment will not make Ireland a country without abortion. Nothing we say or do here could make it a country without abortion.”
Of course, it is easier to attack the views which one attributes to others than it is to engage with the opinions which they actually hold.
No pro-life Irish person has ever thought that Ireland was a country untouched by abortion.
As long as there is pregnancy, there will be abortion. It exists in all societies, at all times, always. The Eighth Amendment, and the broader legislative framework underpinning it, is aimed at curbing the practice by providing constitutional protection for the unborn.
As a policy, it has been successful. The enshrinement of the right to life of the unborn in Bunreacht na hÉireann prevented the nightmare scenario of unelected judges declaring abortion to be a right, as occurred in the United States.
While it was never practicable to prevent Irish citizens from accessing the same services elsewhere, the ban on abortion has always meant that the practise has been far less prevalent among our people, and that far fewer unborn children have been sacrificed at the gallows of ‘choice.’
The statistics speak for themselves.
Whereas about one in twenty Irish pregnancies ends in abortion, the figure in the United Kingdom is over one in five. Similar figures are witnessed elsewhere in the West, and no European country can boast of a lower rate of pregnancies ending in abortion than that which exists here.
Not only are the numbers of Irish women accessing abortion overseas not rising, they have actually fallen enormously over the last 15 years, and are now at the lowest level since 1980.
Would this have happened without the Eighth Amendment? Of course not.
Micheál wasn’t done there though.
“Rates of abortion appear to link more with societal and cultural issues rather than legal limits,” he went on, in his contention that our laws fail in their intended purpose to protect human life. “In fact, research published in the medical journal The Lancet indicates that some countries have seen a reduction in the number of abortions following liberalisation.”
The best comparisons here come from the nations with which we share the most in common: Britain and America. The Abortion Act of 1967 presaged a rapid increase in the number of terminations taking place in Britain, just a few years before the Roe-v-Wade judgement kick-started a similar process Stateside. Similar trends were observed throughout Europe, too, whenever abortion laws were liberalised.
Pro-abortion campaigners are generally silent on this point, unsurprisingly.
To those who concede no rights to the unborn in the womb, the question of whether a thousand abortions will take place, or ten thousand, is an academic one.
Yet to the majority of the Irish population in the middle ground, this central truth will be in their minds in the coming months. Should abortions become easier to access, more of them will take place.
The value of Ireland’s laws has been to save lives: the lives of children (many of whom are now adults and parents themselves) whose mothers and fathers had limited means, were in unsteady relationships, or possibly had a disability.
Like the procedure itself, the hard cases and grey areas will be with us always.
There are umpteen reasons why an essentially good person could consider the choice of ending a pregnancy, especially in a society in which the small but growing person is not recognised as having the right to be born.
Ireland has long refused to present the killing of inconvenient or imperfect lives as a solution to these problems. Instead, it has sought to love both mother and child, care for both mother and child, and kill neither.
Our enviably low rates of maternal death – some of the lowest in the world – testify to the benefits of this approach.
Furthermore, many of those who vote on the issue this year will only be alive to do so because of constitutional protection for the unborn.
In 2016, an independent actuarial report commissioned by the Pro Life Campaign was published. It estimated how many abortions would have been performed on Irish women between 1994-2014 had abortion rates in other comparable jurisdictions prevailed here, and the findings suggested that the Eighth Amendment may have saved well over 100,000 lives in that time period alone.
That is a safe estimate.
A voter might support legalising abortion in the hope that it remains rare, a last recourse in desperate and tragic situations.
However, a trade-off exists.
The evidence from around the world shows clearly that liberal abortion laws will inevitably be abused, so that the practise will become normalised and abortion rates will rise significantly.
It has happened elsewhere, again and again. There is nothing inherently different about Ireland which will prevent it happening here too, should the Eight be repealed.
Those critical of the pro-life movement sometimes allege that its members have a romantic – and often religious – vision of the purity of Ireland, and how it must be retained.
This is far from the truth. Nations are unique, but no nation is uniquely virtuous. Legalising abortion in Ireland will almost certainly lead to the same consequences here as it did elsewhere: large-scale eradication of unborn children, the distortion of the core purpose of the medical profession and the cheapening of human life more generally.
If Martin had a shred of honesty in him, he would have acknowledged this. He did not, and instead resorted to vague assertions from unspecified medical journal articles.
When his speech was over, Martin basked in his new-found popularity among the journalistic and cultural elite whose approval he has always sought. A glowing article from Miriam Lord in The Irish Times will be a highlight which he will forever cherish.
There were follow-up interviews to be had also, most notably on Prime Time and TV3’s The Tonight Show, where the presenters attempted to tease out the details of his sudden – and some would say cynical – conversion.
After all, the man who is now a vocal advocate for unrestricted abortion up until 12 weeks refused to give any sort of clear answer about the issue during Election 2016, when a large majority of his party’s candidates fought their campaigns on pro-life platforms.
In fact, last May, Martin refused to commit to supporting abortion in cases of rape.
“I know people today who are alive whose mothers – in one particular case – was raped and she was the outcome of that. And she gets very angry when people suggest she should never have had a life,” he said.
RTÉ’s David McCullagh pressed him on this during the Prime Time interview, with no satisfactory answer being forthcoming about his change of heart, or how he would explain it to this supposed friend.
On TV3, Martin went on to erect and torch similar straw men to those he attacked before.
“The idea that in changing the law people will automatically all want to have abortions every time they become pregnant, I don’t buy that anymore,” he said.
Nobody in the pro-life camp does either. Only a fool ever would have.
“I just don’t believe that obstetricians in this country, or pediatricians, or neonatologists are interested in becoming abortionists overnight. I just don’t accept that. My own life experience tells me that obstetricians, pediatricians, neonatologists… their whole desire is to look after the mother and the baby.”
The holes in this argument are so obvious that to point them out is wearisome. Irish medical practitioners do indeed look after the mother and the baby: they are required to do so by law.
That a political leader should cite the existing culture of care for two categories of people as an argument for stripping away legal protections from one shows quite some level of incoherence. Verbal and intellectual gymnastics are the logical result of having no beliefs about this at all.
He wasn’t done either.
“I think the days of absolutism, of fundamentalism on the issue are gone,” he glibly informed the audience.
Just four months before this interview, a well-known Dublin hotel had to cancel a pro-life conference after its staff were subjected to online abuse including alleged death threats. I guess it’s still good to know that Micheál has assured us that fundamentalism is dead.
Martin’s shoddy treatment of his own TDs and Senators was also a topic for discussion during the recent interviews.
The fact the leader of a major party had attended a meeting of his parliamentary party the night before speaking in the Dáil, and had given no indication of what he was about to do, caused uproar within Fianna Fáil.
In the words of Kilkenny TD John McGuinness, Martin had failed to treat his own party members with enough courtesy to tell them what he was intent on doing.
An Irish Times podcast featuring political correspondents provided more insights into the real anger which exists within the parliamentary party. Many TDs are seeking an explanation about his recent conduct, a meeting of pro-life TDs has taken place aimed at showing the public that the pro-life voices within the party will not be silenced.
As a leader who has long treated his own party with disdain, none of this will matter to Martin.
His aspirations to reshape Fianna Fáil and lead a progressive party of the soft left have been roughly as successful as his previous tenure as Health Minister.
If truth be told, Fianna Fáil is still more rural than urban, more conservative than liberal, more Bobby Aylward than Stephen Donnelly, more Jack Chambers than Lisa Chambers, and more pro-life than pro-repeal.
Hardcore Repeal supporters and wine-glass clinking suburbanites were prepared to raise a toast to Martin this month, but they probably won’t be prepared to vote for his party at the next election, or any election afterwards.
And yet this contemptible effort to appeal to them will go on, and on.
In hindsight, this dramatic volte-face on abortion was coming for a long time.
Martin’s letter to the Pro Life Campaign in 2011 promising that under his leadership Fianna Fáil would “oppose moves to legalise abortion in Ireland” should be viewed as the starting point on a long journey encompassing multiple betrayals.
Martin’s first renunciation of the pro-life position came in 2013, when he voted for the government’s abortion legislation, and attempted to persuade his party colleagues to do the same.
This effort was unsuccessful, with The Irish Times reporting on May 30th of 2013 that in spite of Martin’s strong advocacy, the parliamentary party had failed to reach a unified position.
The same article by Ronan McGreevy noted the fact that Martin’s preference was for the party to take a unified position, but that a conscience vote was allowed due to the divisions which existed.
At this time, Fine Gael could afford to lose several pro-life parliamentary party members by expelling them, but having experienced a shellacking in 2011, Martin could not shrink his party any further.
Since then, and particularly in the last week, Martin has repeatedly touted this conscience vote decision – which he never wanted to begin with – as a sign of Fianna Fáil’s collegiality, and implicitly, a strength of his own leadership.
Remember this every time he trots out that line in the months to come, and remember his 2011 letter too, and how he has ignored several overwhelming pro-life majorities in motions on abortion at Fianna Fáil Ard Fheiseanna.
Remember that every step he has ever taken on this personal journey regarding abortion legislation has neatly matched the prevailing winds, and in particular, what may be best and easiest for his career.
If Micheál Martin is not the embodiment of everything that is wrong with Irish politics, then I don’t know what is.