Change in Ireland

November 24, 1992

Ireland's Labor Party, traditionally a vehicle for the respectable left, is the probable gainer from the muddled politics that will produce both an election to replace a broken coalition and a confusing referendum on abortion tomorrow. Of the four Irish mainstream political parties, Labor is the only one currently not in public disfavor. Its leader, Dick Spring, towers above his rivals in the polls.

The referendum is on three constitutional amendments that would prohibit abortion in nearly all circumstances but permit freedom of travel abroad to get information about abortion. They are meant to correct an Irish Supreme Court interpretation of the existing constitutional ban that left everyone dissatisfied. The three amendments would insure that Ireland could continue to export its abortions to England. The problem Ireland got into was putting this provision into the constitution, which could be changed only by a referendum, rather than keeping it legislative and subject to change by the parliament as changes in public opinion might dictate.

The Irish election comes just as Prime Minister Albert Reynolds' Fianna Fail party, which normally rules, is at low ebb in public esteem. So is its coalition junior partner, the Progressive Democrats of leader Desmond O'Malley. This election was required after the coalition broke up when Mr. Reynolds and Mr. O'Malley impugned each other's honesty before a group known as the Beef Tribunal. This panel is investigating a scandal of government favors for one company in the beef export business. (While British and American governments winked at their nationals' sale of weapons to Iraq, the Irish government fell over a contract to sell beef to Iraq.)

But if Fianna Fail has fallen on hard times, so has the leading opposition party, Fine Gael, which has lost its way.

Labor's Mr. Spring may not emerge from tomorrow's vote as prime minister. But he does have a chance, and an even better chance of dictating whether Mr. Reynolds or Fine Gael's John Bruton will, and on what terms. In effecting that change, this could emerge as one of the Irish Republic's most decisive elections in decades.

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