I made it clear some time ago that I am not particularly enthusiastic about this amendment. I said that, if there was a free vote on this amendment, certainly I would be voting against it. I made it clear at that time, and do so again, that a free vote can only operate when it is free all round, when the Whip is lifted on all parties and when all parties agree that a question is left emphatically to the individual decision of the Deputy.
That is not the case in this debate. At the outset, may I say I will be voting with my party in favour of the amendment in line with the commitment given by my party in the general election. I regret that this is so, because if ever there was a case for a free vote in this House this is one. I have no doubt that, if there was a free vote, the referendum would be held, that there would be in this House a sizeable majority voting out of conviction for the holding of this referendum. If there was a free vote I believe that vote would more accurately reflect the true feelings of people in this House on the question of whether or not this referendum should be held. Certainly it would be a much more accurate reflection of what is the true feeling in this House.
It would also be very much in line with what I believe is the true feeling in the country, not on the question of abortion — because if ever there was an issue on which there is almost universal concensus it is against abortion — but on whether or not it should be necessary to hold this referendum. Anybody here who reflects what she or he hears knows that throughout the country the people are divided on whether or not there should be a referendum. We Deputies come across it each day. I come across it talking to students. I come across it in my constituency, in the pub. I come across it talking to old people and young people, men and women. We all know that people are disagreeing on whether or not there should be a referendum. They are doing this calmly, in good faith. They are doing it without abusing each other's motives. They see it as an issue on which it is possible to have honest doubts as to whether an amendment is a good thing at present or ever. It is possible to disagree without being bitter about one's opponents without casting doubts on their bona fides, without thinking that anybody who opposes the holding of a referendum is in some way ambivalent on the basic question of abortion.
That is the position in the country. That is how people see it in urban and rural Ireland and across all age groups. All of us who go to meetings, as all of us do in this House will see first of all that very many people are not particularly turned on by this whole issue anyway; but those who are are much more open-minded in their approach than is the official party line in both of the major parties in this House. It is a question on which there is room for honest doubts and disagreement. It is a pity that in this debate we here cannot be as open and as honest as are the ordinary people outside the House. It is a pity also, and I regret it, that we in this House have allowed what is an extremely important and sensitive moral issue to become a political football and, in some cases, though happily in very few, to be used to denigrate the integrity of opponents or used for immediate political advantage.
I have listened carefully to most speakers in this debate and have read what everybody has said. I would say that the tone of the debate has been at a very high level: for the most part the tone of the debate has been one of tolerance and of at least attempting to understand the case even if one did not necessarily agree with it. A lot of the credit for this must go to Deputy O'Hanlon, the new Fianna Fáil spokesman on Health, who set a very balanced and dignified tone for this debate.
I would take certain exception to what Deputy O'Dea said. I do not belong to any group. I make up my mind on this matter as best I can. I have written to both sides, I have talked with both sides and have read what I could. I believe that no side has a monopoly of intolerance or bigotry in this matter. There are extremes on both sides. But I regret very much that Deputy O'Dea felt compelled to bring into question the good faith of the vast majority on the anti-amendment side. No less than those on the pro-amendment side they are trying to be honest, and trying to speak with conviction on what to all of us is an important and central question. I am sorry he saw fit to cast doubt, indeed almost to introduce an element of smear, on some of those people, especially since they are not in a position to reply under the privilege of the House.
I want to outline the reasons why I am most unenthusiastic about holding this referendum. Like Deputy Gregory-Independent and Deputy Kelly and many others who spoke, I am very unhappy about the way in which this amendment came about. As is now well known, commitments were given without proper debate, without proper thought, and without proper consultation. They were given without the type of reflection which should always precede any change in the law, and which most emphatically should always precede a change in our basic law, the Constitution.
We all know there were election pressures. We all know there is a degree of distrust between the leaders of the two main parties in this House which probably has not been equalled since the first decade of the State. Perhaps in part that explains why the party leaders were so quick to rush in. Perhaps it explains why there was not fuller consultation on a matter which should never have been agreed to at such short notice and without a proper, full debate.
During the election campaign those of us who had doubts should have come out and said so. I expressed my reservations to people who spoke to me. I said there was a commitment to the holding of a referendum and that commitment would be honoured. That is the position today. Those of us who had reservations were caught up in the rush of events. I am not apologising for that now. I am not particularly proud of it but it happened. We were afraid that what seemed to be a peripheral issue, a red herring, would become a central issue in the campaign, and the main thrust and the main concern of the election would be side-tracked.
I agree emphatically with Deputy Kelly that all parties in this House should have a self-imposed embargo on commitments made, as he said, in the octave of an election period when groups find political parties at their most uncertain. All politicians are like this. There is no point in people on the opposite side adopting a holier-than-thou attitude. All politicians are nervous before elections. Pressure groups know they have politicians in a vulnerable position. That was never more true than over the past year or two, given the record of political instability and the fevered atmosphere of Irish politics during that time.
This pressure group exploited that situation brilliantly and effectively. I do not blame the pro-amendment people for having done that. They saw an opportunity. They were deeply concerned to get their point of view across and to achieve an objective, and they used that opportunity brilliantly. They did it effectively and in good faith, and that is why this House is having a debate today on this amendment.
I am unenthusiastic about holding a referendum on this amendment because of the principle involved in the way it was rushed into the House. My second reason for my lack of enthusiasm about this amendment is that I feel very deeply we should not change our Constitution until all other means of achieving the desired objective have been explored. There is no urgency at present about this question. There is no case before the High Court let alone the Supreme Court to change the law on abortion.
As Deputy John Kelly, who is the foremost constitutional expert on this subject, pointed out changes in the Constitution do not take place overnight. There will be at least a year's notice, and perhaps two years, while the process works its way through the legal system. As he also pointed out, the entire ethos of our courts system is very different from that of the other legal systems cited by those who fear, and perhaps fear very genuinely, that they could wake up in the morning and find the law has been changed. That will not happen. The process is much more lengthy and the ethos of our courts is very different.
There is no urgency, no pressure about this. There is no immediate threat, no immediate danger. For that reason, the whole question should have been examined much more carefully and at greater length in the normal legislative process. Normally when we face a difficult question we set up an all-party committee. We know that in changing the Constitution there should be as wide a degree of consensus as possible. We know the matter should be fully examined, all the possibilities should be studied in detail, the best possible expert advice should be got not outside the House but inside the House. That is why we have all-party committees. That has always been the approach to changing the Constitution. At least there is a proper in-depth examination and a major public debate beforehand.
We have plenty of time for that approach. There is no immediate threat. Yet no attempt has been made — not even a start was made in this House — to examine the present situation, to ask ourselves if the existing legislation, the 1861 Act, is in danger of becoming outdated or needs to be strengthened. We made no attempt to see in what ways our social services or our educational services could be improved to prevent the very thing we are talking about, that is, to prevent people having to seek abortions.
We did not begin to examine those questions. There is a whole range of allied aspects of this matter which we as legislators, we as the elected Parliament, should have examined. We should have sought the best possible advice to see if the law was working and whether it needed strengthening. Then in here we should have examined in detail whether there was a possibility at some stage in the future of this legislation being found unconstitutional.
That debate should have taken place in the calmness of a committee of the whole House, away from fevered political activity, away from the pressures of elections, away from the immediate concerns of this House. That would have been a simple process. That is the way it should have been done. That process was not engaged in and it reflects badly on this House that it was not done. On the few occasions in our history that we changed our Constitution, we did not rush lightly into changing it. We did not say it must be done as quickly as possible, that there was not time for a full debate, that we would not utilise the existing process of examination and the existing means by which parliament itself could strengthen the legislation or find out what difficulties or weaknesses existed in it.
Everyone in this House, from whichever party, surely has sufficient respect and reverence for our Constitution to agree that changing it is something which should not be undertaken lightly or in a hurry. We should approach changing our Constitution at a much slower pace and only when all other devices have failed. The case for immediate change and an immediate referendum has not been made. We have not even begun to exhaust the possibilities in this House of strengthening the legislation and achieving the objective all four Deputies sitting in the House want to achieve. I am certain all four of us are at one in the objective we wish to achieve. We are sitting in a sovereign parliament but the initiative did not come from us. It was not set by the political parties but from pressure from outside groups. As a parliament we have ceded a certain amount of our respect and sovereignty in not standing up and doing it our way. Any other approach represents a partial abdication of our responsibilities. I am speaking about the way in which this Bill came before us. It may be that the end result will be that we will see the referendum on the same wording but let us do it in such a way that the self-respect of the House is not damaged.
In the twenties the founders of the State took the view that the Constitution should be easily amended. If 75,000 people signed a petition requring a constitutional change a referendum would be held. This was in tune with the thinking at the time that democracy should be made as accessible as possible. That device was abolished in 1928 because the Government of the day saw that there was a clash between the sovereignty of the Government and easy access to referenda. This abolition was opposed by Mr. de Valera at the time but in 1937 when he drew up his own Constitution he made no attempt to introduce this popular initiative. He saw clearly that there could be a clash between the two different concepts of Government. This clash is best illustrated in the experience of modern France where Charles de Gaulle, who hated parliament and parliamentarians, consistently used the referendum as a weapon against them and played down the power of parliament. He did this with purpose and with considerable success.
Mr. de Valera with wisdom saw that easy access to a referendum could undermine the position of parliament since parliaments from time to time have to make hard decisions and take unpopular measures. One of the reasons for a five-year parliament is to protect it from the fury of the people. Mr. de Valera, who spoke so strongly on this issue nine years earlier, made no attempt to have easy access to a referendum. In fact he designed his Constitution to ensure that referenda would be initiated by parliament. The practice through the years has been that a referendum is not undertaken lightly and the pressure for one comes from within the House and not outside.
There are some who feel that this is a bad system and that the Constitution is too remote. Some would like to see us going back to the system which operated in 1922 but which was later abolished. When this referendum goes through there will be a move back to the old position and there will be pressure from outside to hold referenda on a wide variety of issues, some of which have been mentioned. We are setting a precedent in that the House is responding to outside pressure. I am not judging whether this is good or bad. Perhaps it is good. There will be other pressing and important issues on which constitutional change will be demanded and it will be hard to answer the arguments put forward. If ACRA say there should be a referendum to abolish ground rents it will be difficult to deny them the right to hold a referendum. If the divorce action group say they have reliable information that over 50 per cent of the people believe that divorce is a constitutional right and that the Constitution should be changed in relation to the whole concept of marriage and divorce can we say that they do not have a right to hold a referndum? If some group say that the concept of Irish neutrality must be enshrined in the Constitution as something that is unchangeable for all time and they say they have survey data which shows that 75 per cent of the people want this, can we say they cannot have a referendum or that the changing of the Constitution must begin in this House? Perhaps we should go back to the 1922 model of the Constitution and encourage direct popular democracy. It would make our lives much easier. We would not have to make hard decisions and we could blame the people if things went wrong and say: "You voted 60/40 in favour of a particular issue".
There is an important precedent being established in so far as changing the Constitution in future is concerned. Perhaps that is good but let us be clear that we are now inviting other groups to have an equally legitimate case to say: "At least give us a chance to let the people speak directly on this matter." It will be hard to resist some of the cases which will be made. For these two reasons I am unenthusiastic about the referendum — the way in which it was initiated and the danger I see to the constitutional practice involved.
I do not believe that the proposed wording is sectarian. The word "sectarian" is used too loosely in this context. There is a certain amount of woolliness on the part of those who oppose the amendment and this charge has been unjustly thrown at many of those who support it.
I have certain mild criticisms to make on the role of the Protestant Churches in this matter. A certain amount of confusion was caused by the early statement of the Protestant Churches that they did not see anything wrong with the wording proposed. Later they said they had difficulty with it. Like politicians, I understand that they had the same pressures of time in this regard but I would have preferred if they had been more authoritative on the matter. A certain amount of confusion is laid at their door. I have not been fully convinced by all of Dean Griffin's arguments. Some of what he has said could be termed sectarian. I do not think the wording is sectarian but this is the first time in our history that we are rushing forward with a measure about which most of the Protestant Churches and those of the Jewish faith have reservations. That those reservations should be expressed publicly should give us some cause for thought.
On the question of sectarianism, much was said about the intolerance of Northern Protestants and what right had they to lecture us on the creation of a tolerant society. To argue along these lines is to go for a wrong but easy answer. We do not take our standards in this House or this country from bigotry. We do not compare ourselves to those who have disgraced the name of tolerance and religion in Northern Ireland over the decade. We are a proud and independent republic. We have always prided ourselves on respecting the rights of minorities. We do this because it is right. We do not do it for any other reason. It is not to impress the people in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.
For that reason the reservations of the Protestants and other groups have to be taken very seriously. For that reason, if for no other reason, we should take our time and make sure everything has been fully discussed, because no matter what we do here it will be seen by our enemies in Northern Ireland as wrong. We cannot change that, so let us make it clear that, when we say we are worried about the reservations of Protestant leaders and Protestant churches, we are worried for the right reasons — because it is the right thing to do and is part of our tradition and if we do not do it the word "republicanism" has no meaning. If we can do that we can reassure the many Protestants in Northern Ireland who are kindly disposed to this part of the island that this is not the case of a majority steamrolling minority groups into submission on a sensitive moral issue. In many ways that is how it has been represented, and we can reassure the many Protestants in this part of the country who are worried that this is not the case either.
When I made my maiden speech in the Seanad it was on a constitutional crusade initiated by the Taoiseach, Deputy FitzGerald. I thought the idea of a constitutional crusade was a good thing, an exciting innovation in Irish politics and I still think so. After 40 years of the present Constitution, excellent in most respects, we have reached the stage where a comprehensive, objective, free-ranging review would be good for all of us and for the Constitution itself. Any change in the Constitution at the present time should be part of that overall review.
I mentioned earlier that there is no pressure, no urgency, for this new legislation. There is no case before the High Court, let alone the Supreme Court. If we are talking about changing the Constitution there is every case for bringing forward this pro-life amendment and making it part of an overall, constitutional review where the full working of the Constitution would be examined freely and objectively. I regret that rushing forward with this referendum is going to blunt the impetus for other necessary constitutional changes which I believe are urgently needed and highly desirable — not to impress the people in Northern Ireland but because there are aspects of our society and Constitution which, in the interests of all the people, deserve to be looked at carefully, if not to be changed.
On the controversy of the wording of the amendment, I was very pleased to hear Deputy D. Andrews, whom I regard as one of the most thoughtful humane members of the Opposition, make a plea for an agreed form of wording. Deputy D. Andrews no more than many people must share the deep sense of unease felt by so many eminent lawyers and doctors who have told us the present proposed wording is inherently dangerous, and that there are implications and consequences which could be the exact opposite to what was intended by those most in favour of the amendment. I am not one to rush in when doctors and lawyers are discussing matters which very often are above the heads of most of us. But if eminent disinterested lawyers and doctors tell us, out of public duty and concern, that the wording is defective and could have consequences which would be the exact opposite of what was intended, the least we owe them is to take what they say seriously, listen to what they say and try to get a better form of wording. I am worried by the insistence of some of those pro-life people that the present form of wording is perfect, cannot be improved on and that we are insisting that this from of wording go ahead. Let us take pause on this matter and get agreement. If we are going to have wording it should be possing to discuss this matter away from the party whip and get the most acceptable form of wording possible. This is a matter on which, as Irish people seeking the same ultimate objective, it is almost obscene to talk in terms of rigid party lines, with one group having a monopoly of wisdom or right on this question.
I regret that this amendment has come before this House the way it did. One consequence of this campaign may well be, as the eminent Dominican, Dr. Fergal O'Connor, pointed out at the end of an extremely thoughtful essay, to promote an increasing awareness among people of abortion and create what he called an abortion mentality. I hope he is wrong, but he is one of the most prophetic people I have met and I am afraid he may be all too right, that the end result of the debate may be very different to what was intended by those who initiated the campaign.
I regret, as did Deputy O'Dea and others, some of the language that has surrounded the debate, especially the too easy branding of those who were anti-amendment as pro-abortion. Those who have indulged in that practice did not do themselves or their cause any good. The campaign in this House has been an honest one, but outside I am afraid some of the tactics used by people on both sides have often fallen far short of truth and honesty. I regret the way we have rushed into this whole question of constitutional change when there was no immediate pressure or external threat. This is a matter which requires and deserves calm deliberation and the least we can have is the fullest possible consultation with all interested groups. I regret that we have rushed in without taking enough time to examine fully the views of all minority churches. I also regret that we may do our well deserved tradition and reputation for respecting minority points of view harm from which we will not easily recover. I regret too that so sensitive an issue, on which there is almost certainly national consensus, has been used in some cases for narrow political ends, which reflects no credit on those who so used it.
It is clear we are going to have a referendum because the majority view in this House is that there should be one. In that case let us put aside party differences, put our heads together and, without bitterness, get the best possible form of words. Let us raise the debate both here and outside the House above party differences and show greater tolerance and understanding so that, when the tumult and shouting have died down and when whatever bitterness there is dies away, we can get down to the much more fundamental and important task of trying to eradicate those conditions which have made abortion such a dreadful scourge in modern society. Then at least we will be talking in genuine terms about a proper pro-life amendment.