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Should the government “consider” going back on its promises?

“A Yes vote does not mean there will be no restrictions; there will be a waiting period of 72 hours to allow for reflection, and counselling to allow alternatives to be offered and considered.”

Those were the very clear, unambiguous words of then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on April 21st 2018, just weeks before voters cast their ballots on whether or not to repeal the 8th Amendment. And not only was this assurance made by the Taoiseach at the time, but then-Tánaiste Simon Coveney also made the same guarantee.

“The informed consent protocol, which is what I’m asking for, is so important,” said Coveney on March 26th 2018. He added: “That’s why a pause period of up to 72 hours is also very important.”

Now, as far as promises go, that’s about as clear cut as it gets. Voters were repeatedly assured in no uncertain terms that reasonable restrictions would be placed on any abortion law that came in, and it’s likely that many of them voted for repeal on the basis of those promises.

How odd, then, to see Simon Harris, who was Health Minister at the time of the vote, declare that he has an “open mind” about ending the promised three-day wait just 4 short years after those promises were made.

Apparently after a review of the legislation, there are at least some senior cabinet members who are open to entirely revoking their party’s promises to the public, safe in the knowledge that their desired political outcome has already been achieved – namely, the repeal of the 8th. It seems like these guarantees were made to get the vote over the line, but once the goal has been achieved…well, the politicians will just have to see if they want to uphold their end of the bargain, won’t they? The ball is in their court, because they already have what they needed from you – namely, your vote.

Which is why I decided to ask Tánaiste Micheál Martin about the matter this week. And his answer was rather non-committal and vague.

When asked about the situation, Martin said that the government “haven’t made any decision” as regards getting rid of the 3-day wait, adding that an Oireachtas committee would now “consider it” and “reflect on it”. Once that was done, he said, they would “report back to government,” at which point the government will “assess it at that time.”

So basically the position is “I don’t know if we’ll go back on our promise yet – we’re thinking about it.” That’s not exactly encouraging, is it?

Contained within that answer is the slightly perturbing fact that the government is “considering” and “assessing” whether or not to blatantly break their clear assurances to voters. And this is made even more serious when you consider that these guarantees were made during a referendum campaign – not even an election.

To go back on a regular campaign promise is bad enough, but at least a new government is chosen every 4 or 5 years, so the damage done is usually relatively minor and less permanent. But to ram a binding constitutional change through on the basis of a promise, and then quickly revoke that promise after the fact is nothing short of outrageous.

Now to give the government the benefit of the doubt, they have not yet reversed their assurances, and maybe they ultimately won’t. Maybe in the end they’ll stick to their guns and say “No lads – we promised the 3-day wait, and we’re holding to it.” And if that turns out to be the case, then fair play – they deserve some credit for having the integrity to stand by what they said. But if not, it will be a true travesty and injustice that demands serious explanation.

Even if one personally is pro-choice, or has no strong feelings on abortion, we should all resent being lied to and deceived, if that is indeed what ultimately happens here. Nobody, regardless of ideology, should want to live in a country where politicians tell people whatever they want to hear to get a vote passed, and then yank the carpet out from under the public’s feet once the job is done. From a purely principled perspective if nothing else, this can’t be allowed to happen in a functioning democratic society.

After all, if we can’t trust politicians’ promises of moderation on an issue like abortion, then how can we trust similar promises on other issues, like hate speech laws, or assisted suicide, or anything else? How can we ever trust what politicians promise again?

One of the foundational pillars that democracy rests upon is mutual trust and good will between the public and those in power. And for the government to squander that trust and good will by engaging in acts of sleight of hand and mass trickery would do immeasurable harm to our social fabric as a whole. Let’s hope they have more integrity than that.


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