A staggering 86 per cent of voters would prefer to see the abortion issue resolved by referendum than by the politicians in Leinster House. A similar proportion believe that if legislators are to decide the issue they should be allowed a free vote.
The poll of 1,000 adults, sponsored by the Life Institute and Family & Life, was conducted by Amárach Research, and its results are consistent with the findings of earlier focus group research.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has repeatedly insisted that his Fine Gael colleagues will not be allowed to vote according to their consciences. It is clear from the poll results that this autocratic style of leadership is not favoured by Fine Gael voters, among whom support for a free vote is exceptionally high at 74 per cent. Support for a free vote is strongest among Fianna Fáil voters at 85 per cent.
Niamh Ui Bhriain of the Life Institute said that the poll showed that TDs such as Peter Mathews were more in tune with the public mood than the Cabinet, and that the public did not agree with the bullying attitude of party leaders towards conscience-based objection to the legislation.
"The whip system employed in Ireland is exceptionally rigid. In most other countries, including the UK, votes in parliament on major issues of conscience such as abortion are free votes, respecting the conscience rights of parliamentarians," said David Manly of Family and Life.
The decision of Fianna Fáil to allow a free vote on the government’s abortion legislation marks the first time in its history that FF has allowed a free vote. Although the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, supports the legislation, there is strong opposition among his parliamentary colleagues.
Mr Kenny, however, remains adamant that a three line whip will apply and that anyone who votes against the government will be expelled from the Fine Geal parliamentary party. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said at the weekend, “We don’t give free votes and everybody, when they decided to become a Fine Gael candidate, signs a pledge that they will vote with the party and that’s our system.” He made no mention of the fact that before the last election Fine Gael candidates also pledged not to legislate for abortion.
The poll also found strong support for the idea of resolving the abortion issue by way of a referendum (86 per cent, excluding don’t knows). A new generation has grown up since the last abortion referendum, yet our focus groups revealed continuing interest and engagement in the issue among young people as well as old. Preference for a referendum is actually higher among under-35s (92 per cent) than over-35s (82 per cent). Women are more likely than men to prefer a referendum, and support is strongest among Fianna Fáil voters (90%).