Sinn Féin leadership facing potential rebellion over abortion vote

Michelle O'Neill backed the liberalisation of Sinn Féin's abortion policy

SINN Féin is facing potential rebellion in its in ranks following the decision to liberalise the party’s abortion policy.

On Saturday, in the wake of an at times heated debate over an ard chomhairle-backed motion, delegates at the ard fheis voted to support a policy that extends access to terminations.

Motion 144 broadened the previous policy by including access to an abortion where a pregnant woman’s health is at risk. Delegates’ support for the shift meant other motions advocating a change in policy automatically fell.

The ard fheis also rejected a motion calling for a ‘conscience vote’ on abortion.

The bid to extend the abortion policy was supported by Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O’Neill, who last week told The Irish News it was “just a restatement of our current policy with additional features”.

Her fellow Mid Ulster MLA Linda Dillon told delegates that the current policy on terminations was “failing women by putting their lives in danger”.

However, the MP for the same constituency was strident in his support of the status quo, describing the previous policy as a “good position”.

Francie Molloy said it was unfortunate that some people “keep pushing the boat out further”.

The Mid Ulster MP said motion 144 was akin to “abortion on demand” because a woman only had to say she was depressed to qualify for a termination.

He warned that many of his rural, socially conservative constituents – who are also Ms O’Neill’s constituents – would not welcome the policy shift.

“It’s very easy to pass a motion here but whenever you go out into the country and find out what the people of Mid Ulster say, it’s an entirely different situation,” he said.

“Think of the people on the ground.”

Commentator Chris Donnelly said Mr Molloy’s comments were the first time a senior northern figure had spoke out against the policy change.

“Although the Francie and Anne Brolly have previously spoken clearly to articulate the concerns held by some within northern Sinn Féin and its broader support base over changes to the party's position on abortion, Francie Molloy's very clear and unambiguous intervention represents the first time a senior elected northern figure has been willing to do publicly stand against the changes,” he said.

“The fact that he shares a constituency with the new northern leader, Michelle O'Neill illustrates how difficult this issue looks likely to be for Sinn Féin in many of its rural, traditional, republican heartlands, north and south – something that may yet encourage the party to move in the direction of making it a conscience matter.”

However, on Saturday delegates voted against a motion calling for a free vote on abortion.

Meath West TD Peadar Toíbín, who in 2013 was suspended from the party for six months over his views on abortion, was among those who spoke in support of a conscience vote.

Mr Toíbín told the ard fheis that changing the party’s policy on abortion would bring it more in line with abortion laws in Britain.

Chris Donnelly said the forthcoming referendum on the eighth amendment, which protects the rights of the unborn child, could expose further division within Sinn Féin.

“The primary spokesperson within SF for those holding a pro-life abortion perspective is Peadar Toibin and it remains to be seen if the party will manage to retain the formidable West Meath TD as a member as the eighth amendment referendum campaign takes shape,” he said.

Party leader Gerry Adams told RTE yesterday that he did not agree with all Sinn Féin’s policies but accepted the will of the ard fheis.

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