A debate on abortion legislation in the Dublin parliament has seen a bitter attack by Sinn Fein TDs against former comrades as a potentially damaging split in the party continues to grow.
On Tuesday a row erupted between Louise O’Reilly of Sinn Fein (centre right, bottom row) who made allegations against the now independent TD Carol Nolan (left). Ms Nolan was seen to be shaking and in tears with indignation as she defended herself.
It came as a parliamentary debate over amendments to abortion legislation descended into a pitched battle in the Dail.
If passed, the legislation is set to provide wide-ranging access to publicly funded abortion. Although it enjoys majority support in the Dublin parliament following a referendum to repeal the blanket constitutional ban on abortion, polls indicate that less than half of Irish voters support the public provision of terminations at the level that is being introduced.
The issue is certain to provide ammunition for next year’s expected general election.
It was in this context that Ms O’Reilly appeared to associate Ms Nolan with the “well-known businessman”, understood to be Declan Ganley, an entrepreneur and political activist who strongly opposes abortion.
Under the protection of parliamentary privilege, the north Dublin TD said of her opponents that “we have people coming in here to do the bidding of a certain well-known businessman”.
The Dublin Fingal TD, an avid supporter of abortion rights, also accused her former comrade of using “shock tactics” by discussing the details and consequences of abortion procedures which have been the subject of some amendments.
Ms Nolan was visibly distressed as she told the Dail that hers was a “conscientious objection”, and that she forced out of “that party” because of it. Her former party colleague Peadar Toibin, who has also now left the party over abortion and was seated beside her in the Dail, offered support.
Sinn Fein’s unusually strict policy requires its representatives to vote in favour of abortion, regardless of their personal beliefs. Its stark shift in position over the past three years always threatened to trigger a split over a broader discontent within the party.
Mr Toibin was suspended for six months in 2013 and again for another six months this year after refusing to vote in line with the party’s position on the issue. Following his resignation last month, Mr Toibin accused Sinn Fein of “ideological drift” and said he now intends to “build a new 32-county movement”.
The new organisation, which the Meath TD describes as an all-Ireland movement, recently recruited Tipperary Councillor Seamie Morris, who quit Sinn Fein earlier this year; Mayo independent Councillor Gerry Ginty; and independent Dr Anne McCloskey in Derry, who narrowly missed out on the last seat in the 2016 Stormont Assembly elections.
Other representatives previously announced include Councillors Ide Cussen and Ger Keohane, both formerly of Sinn Fein, and others still unnamed.
Declan McGuinness, a brother of the late Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness, is also in contact with Mr Toibin.
With Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein both moving sharply towards a pro-choice stance, and in the absence of a political challenge by populist Presidential candidate Peter Casey, who has taken up a post in Newstalk radio, a number of commentators have said a new party espousing ‘traditional’ values could win seats across Ireland.
Dozens of meetings are underway around the country for the new movement and are said to be well attended.
Speaking last weekend at a commemoration to Frank Driver, an IRA veteran and an honorary vice president of Sinn Fein when he died in 1981 at the age of 74, Mr Toibin blamed “group think” for what he said was going on within Sinn Fein.
As an example, he condemned the party leadership for travelling to Westminster to seek new legislation for the north of Ireland.
“This is unprecedented,” he said. “Never in the 200 years of republicanism have republican leaders gone to London calling on them to legislate for any part of Ireland. This is not the meaning of self-determination, it’s the opposite.”
He said the party had ‘radically narrowed the ideological space’.
“Centralised, top town decision making has disempowered the grassroots. And as a result it is shedding members by the bus full.”
He called for a republican movement “broad enough to harness the energy of all republicans in the country” and to finally “do justice to the men and women like Frank Driver who have gone before”.
Sinn Fein has not commented on the recent meetings, but in response to Mr Toibin’s resignation, Sinn Fein said that the delegates who attend the party’s Ard Fheis [conference] were responsible for its policies.
“All Sinn Fein elected representatives are bound by the decisions of the Ard Fheis,” said party leader Mary Lou McDonald.
“The people voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment [on abortion]. There is a responsibility on all Sinn Fein TDs to give effect to the people’s vote and to represent Sinn Fein policy. Unfortunately Peadar was unable to do this.”