Northern Ireland

Sinn Fein's All-Ireland dilemma over abortion laws

The Irish government has said it wants to bring legal clarity to the issue of abortion.

Image caption The death of Savita Halappanavar has reignited the debate on abortion laws

But the debate has put the spotlight on Sinn Fein.

The stance the party has taken on the issue in the Republic, compared to Northern Ireland, highlights the differences in how the party markets itself in both jurisdictions.

Peadar Toibin, the Sinn Fein TD for Meath East, recently broke ranks indicating his pro-life stance.

"I will be voting pro-life in the Dail and in any vote that happens in Leinster House, " he said.

Separate bases

He was reacting to a Sinn Fein motion, a call for legislation on the termination of pregnancy in the Republic where a woman's life is in danger.

That motion turned the mirror on Sinn Fein.

"Within that debate it was teased out that Sinn Fein's attitude towards abortion in the south is very different to the position that they appear to be adopt when in power in the North, " explains Fionnan Sheahan, political editor of the Irish Independent.

"An accusation was thrown at them by the Labour Party - 'If you are so attached to a policy of a more liberal abortion regime in this part of the country why have you not introduced legislation in Northern Ireland?'"

Dr Eoin O'Malley, a lecturer in political science in Dublin City University, says that within the Republic, Sinn Fein is working from two separate bases.

"In the Republic, Sinn Fein is marketing itself as a radical socialist party but it also has a conservative nationalist constituency, particularly in rural Ireland."

"The two strands can marry each other quite well on the economy."

'Public disquiet'

But the issue of abortion can cleave political parties in half.

"When it comes to issues such as abortion you see a split" says Dr Eoin O'Malley.

"There are some signs of splits within the party and the party has to make a decision as to whether it is one or the other."

"At the moment it is firmly in the socially liberal camp, unlike in Northern Ireland, it's quite clearly coming out in favour of legislating and regulating for abortion."

While it's not unusual for party politicians to hold opposing views, Peadar Toibin was the only one of Sinn Fein's fourteen Dail deputies not to sign the party motion calling for action on the issue of abortion.

Mary Lou McDonald, vice president of Sinn Fein, says that united parties have differing views, particularly on sensitive topics.

"We are a united party and we are a disciplined team and this is a difficult issue."

"The matter is now so acute and so long overdue and has caused such a level of public disquiet that we felt an onus to lead from the front and to state our position clearly and to ask for discipline and unity from our members in so doing."

'Mainstream party'

On social issues the party, explains Fionnan Sheahan, is driven more by Dublin than Belfast.

"In Northern Ireland they tend to adopt quite a conservative approach whereas in the south, because of that strong competition they are engaging in with the Labour party for votes, they tend to adopt a more liberal approach."

But is Sinn Fein, in the Republic, undergoing the political equivalent of growing pains?

"The party is new as a strong force this side of the border, they have not really been a major fixture in debates such as divorce that we had in the 1980's and 90's. Sinn Fein was still on the margins at that stage" says Fionnan Sheahan.

"Now Sinn Fein has evolved they are in effect a mainstream party, one in the top four in the country, so I think people are seeing that they are being drawn out more in terms of their exact stance on certain issues."

If all politics is local, Peadar Toibin is not being frozen out by his constituents in the town of Navan.

"I think he was a brave man to do what he did" says Dick Stapleton. "He has principles and he lives up to them."


Kathleen Ennis agrees: "It was a brave move on his part to step away from the other TDs. In a way it's admirable."

Dr O'Malley acknowledges that differences within a party that promotes itself on an all-Ireland basis are difficult to manage.

"Sinn Fein is essentially a party of the establishment in Northern Ireland whereas in the Republic it is the anti-austerity party."

"Sinn Fein has managed to do both pretty much in isolation of each other, possibly because the people of the Republic and people of Northern Ireland live to some extent in isolation of each other."

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