Saturday, 26 January 2013

Sting of a dying wasp - Enda Kenny, former Official Sinn Féin and the push for X-case legislation

In 1994, a parliamentary question was put to the then Minister for Justice, Mrs Máire Geoghegan Quinn (Galway West, Fianna Fáil) about the existence of the Official IRA. The minister answered that An Garda Síochána were satisfied they did exist. The deputy who asked the question was the then Fine Gael front bencher, Enda Kenny (Mayo West).

In recent weeks, The Irish Times highlighted correspondence unearthed in Berlin between the General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Ireland, Seán Garland, and the East German government. Mr Garland was looking for financial support for his party and he made clear in the letters what his fellow party members were consistently denying at the time. That the Official IRA not only existed, but contributed to the Workers' Party.

I recall this time very well. Workers' Party spokesmen hypocritically condemned the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin while denying their own paramilitary wing existed. Those who questioned this were treated as cranks. Few journalists made a point of highlighting reports of continued Official IRA activity. Vincent Browne was one of the very few who did so (at great personal risk) and he is also one of the few journalists to ask about the relationship of two of Mr Kenny's cabinet appointees to this body.

Many members of the Workers' Party did not have a clear picture of what the Official IRA were up to in the 1980s. It is hard to credit that this was true of serving Workers' Party T.D.s such as Pat Rabitte and Éamon Gilmore (both of whom had been activists in the Party since the days it was known as Official Sinn Féin), but this may have been the case. What these two men were not blind to was their party's relationship with totalitarian regimes behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere. This is altogether a more serious issue than the Official IRA and raises questions about the ministers' views on human rights.
Civil war within while face massacre without
At present, the Labour Party is facing an electoral massacre and behind the scenes there appears to be a battle royal between Old Labour types and ex-Democratic Left members. The principal target of the former Democratic Left grouping's anger is the Labour Party chairman, Colm Keaveney (Galway East). Deputy Keaveney has already challenged the leadership consensus on a few issues. One of the most noticeable was the closure of the Irish Embassy to the Holy See.

At the time of the last general election, Labour made all sorts of promises about keeping the public sector intact. The Labour Party leader, Deputy Gilmore (Dún Laoghaire, Labour, before that Democratic Left, before that the Workers' Party, before that Sinn Féin the Workers' Party, before that Official Sinn Féin) became Minister for Foreign Affairs. The department gave him proposals to save money by cutting back on staff in the various Irish legations overseas. This plan did not involve closing any embassys or consulates. The department is aware that when diplomatic missions are closed, there are significant costs in re-opening them. The new minister came up with his own plan, which involved closing three embassys – the Holy See, Iran and Timor Leste. There was no trade function connected to the Holy See, he said. If trade was the only reason, there was no reason to close the Iranian embassy given the very favourable trade balance between Ireland and Iran. There are many reasons to keep all three embassys open: as long as the Church maintains its presence in education and healthcare in Ireland, the state requires a mission to the Holy See; that most of us have no great sympathy for the current regime in Iran is a very good argument for maintaining an embassy there; and what sort of message regarding human rights does closing the Timor Leste embassy send out?

The announcement regarding the Holy See embassy was preceded by Mr Kenny's infamous “elitist, narcissistic and dysfunctional” speech about the Vatican. This was not a Labour Party initiative and if Deputy Kenny sings about praise he received from many parish priests, God help them, he had no answer for the detailed rebuttal of the speech by the Holy See. One wonders if it was the Association of Catholic Priests that drives policy here? Be that as it may, the government were forced to back-track on the embassy issue and are now pleading economic circumstances to get the Vatican allow them open an office for the Embassy to the Holy See separate from the Embassy to Italy in the Villa Spada complex. Hard to be sympathetic to people who shot themselves in the foot.

There is no doubt that the government are facing serious challenges on the economic front and that difficult decisions have to be taken. Both Fine Gael and Labour should have been aware of that prior to the 2011 General Election when they made promises they knew they could not keep. The two parties also made promises which could not be mutually accomodated in a programme for government. In the situation Education Minister Ruairí Quinn (Dublin South-East) finds himself, he cynically masks the wholesale cuts he is making in services by cheerleading the voices for secularism in education, going back on some of the reasonable comments he made on the rights of Catholic parents while in opposition. Mr Quinn, of course, was in Labour all along. But one does suspect someone who was a Vladimir Illyich Lenin lookalike in his younger years. Seriously though, some of Deputy Quinn's rants would not be too foreign to the Orange thugs who chased his father and uncle out of Newry in the 1920s.
Sting of a dying wasp
As Labour's support collapses in the polls, civil war continues within the party . Deputy Gilmore did consider expelling Deputy Keaveney from the party, but has apparently dropped the plan. It makes little difference. Labour had the opportunity of being the main opposition party last year with a good chance of leading government after the next election. Fortunately for the rest of us, they were too greedy. They wanted cabinet seats immediately. Which leaves us with another problem. The sting of a dying wasp is very dangerous.

Labour have swallowed the climate of cut backs which Fine Gael have demanded (though it is true that on their own, Fine Gael would have devestated the public sector). There has to be a quid pro quo in the matter. In this regard, the horrid spectre of abortion has raised its head. Labour has a policy, not shared by everyone in the party, of legislating for the X-case; Fine Gael gave a pretty unequivocal commitment not to. I gather the wording was that of the present Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny) who was Fine Gael's Director of Elections at the time.

After the election, Fine Gael already backtracked by setting up an expert group with a clear pro-abortion bias rather than the promised all party Oireachtas committee. Then the Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly (Dublin North) announced six governments had failed to legislate for the X case, and this would not be the seventh to do so. This in itself was not a problem. The issues were somewhat obscured by the so-called Children's Rights Referendum which registered a low turnout and low margin after a campaign in which the government was found to be in breach of the law. The referendum took place a couple of days after Barack Obama won a second term in the White House. Then the Savita Halappanavar case hit the headlines. One has every sympathy for Mrs Halappanavar, her widower and their family, but abortion is a red herring in the case. The woman was suffering from septicaemia and E-coli at the time of her death and an abortion would not have made any difference. However, an impression was created which gave the government an opportunity to move quickly on the matter.
Whip your people into line
There are Fine Gael deputies with misgivings about X-case legislation. In this case the problem appears to be a commitment given by Enda Kenny to the Labour Party on the matter. We all know how much Deputy Kenny's promises are worth, but this is exceptional. The Labour T.D. Anne Ferris (Wicklow) foolishly went on radio to say Deputy Gilmore told Mr Kenny that he had to whip his people into line on the matter. This should be something to make any committed Fine Gael member writhe in anger, but this does not appear to have happened. What is wrong with a party which was overbrimming with confidence at the time of the last election, especially when the threats are coming from another party that is facing electoral oblivion in the polls and are in no position to make demands about anything.

Abortion is the most obnoxious of a basket of issues which the former Irish cheerleaders of the Stasi and KGB want. Fine Gael are showing themselves to have no backbone in the matter. Both deserve the wrath of the electorate, but I rather fear the larger party in government will survive with a slap on the wrist. Which means had Enda Kenny any guts, he could refuse Labour's demands and call their bluff. But it seems he has more courage towards his own backbenchers than with the Labour Party, led as it is by members of the former Official Sinn Féin.

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