29 May

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

News and Analyses, A Foreign Perspective

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World Politics


Ireland’s PM staked his reputation on change and will reap dividends of the result

Leo Varadkar arrives for the abortion referendum result at Dublin Castle

Leo Varadkar arrives for the abortion referendum result at Dublin Castle on Saturday. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Ireland’s landslide vote to repeal its abortion ban was an extraordinary political success for Ireland’s young prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who staked his political reputation and possibly his job on a conviction that his fast-changing country would support change.

The scale of the victory means legislation outlined by Varadkar before the vote is likely to pass through parliament relatively unhindered.

The health minister, Simon Harris, said he would start the process on Tuesday, when the Irish cabinet will meet to discuss draft legislation to allow terminations within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and up to 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.

The outline of new legislation was laid out ahead of the referendum, but details must be agreed with doctors and approved by Ireland’s parliament and senate.

However, several prominent anti-abortion campaigners have already said they will not try to interfere with change after the government won such a clear mandate, and Varadkar has promised the abortion laws will be on the statute book by the end of the year.

Irish PM: ‘A quiet revolution has taken place’ – video

The repeal was driven by huge grassroots campaign work, and came on the back of decades of campaigning by both women’s rights activists and the minority of Irish politicians who have always backed reform, most notably the Labour party.

Varadkar was bolstered by cross-party support, including from the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, and the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin. But the biggest dividends of victory will likely accrue to him.

Already set for a place in the history books as Ireland’s youngest ever taoiseach, its first government minister of Indian heritage and its first openly gay head of government, he will also be remembered as the man who paved the way for a landmark change on abortion.

The result will likely bolster his confidence in his own political judgment. And with a general election looming, and his party’s coalition agreement with Fianna Fáil due to expire in October, the political dividend will be welcome.

Neither Varadkar nor his party have a track record as long-term champions of women’s reproductive rights. Less than a decade ago, Varadkar was describing himself as anti-abortion.

But that was a different country and perhaps a different politician. He came out as gay publicly in 2015, before Ireland’s landmark referendum on marriage equality.

The popular vote for gay citizens to have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples in Ireland was a remarkable repudiation of Catholic doctrine, and a sign that the church’s once unbreakable grip on the country had loosened.

For Varadkar it was also a personal landmark. In his first speech as prime minister he paid tribute to his predecessor, Enda Kenny, for calling the referendum and successfully campaigning to pass it.

“His leadership also enabled me to become an equal citizen in my own country only two short years ago and to aspire to hold this office, an aspiration which I once thought was beyond my reach, at least, if I chose to be myself,” he said.

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Finance minister says ‘this is an investment in Canada’s future’ and says pipeline will and must be built

The pipeline, to transport crude from Alberta to port in British Columbia, has faced fierce environmental opposition.

The pipeline, to transport crude from Alberta to port in British Columbia, has faced fierce environmental opposition. Photograph: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

Canada’s federal government has announced it will buy a controversial pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific coast to ensure it gets built.

Finance minister Bill Moreneau said on Tuesday that Justin Trudeau’s government will spend C$4.5bn (US$3.45bn) to purchase Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.

“It must be built. It will be built,” said Moreneau, who described the project as a “vital interest” for the country.

The contentious mega project, which involves tripling the capacity of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, has been mired in uncertainty for months, amid fierce opposition from environmentalists and indigenous groups and a bitter feud between Canada’s two westernmost provinces over environmental risks.

The line would allow Canada to increase exports to Asia, where it could command a higher price. Canada has the world’s third largest oil reserves but 99% of its exports now go to refiners in the US, where limits on pipeline and refinery capacity mean Canadian oil sells at a discount.

The agreement to purchase the pipeline, struck after weeks of negotiations between company representatives and government officials, will mean the government takes over the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and terminal assets – with the aim of commencing construction in August.

“It’s a chess move that allows the project to proceede and positions it as a national interest. [But] it’s also highly risky because now the government bears the risk,” said Matti Siemiatycki, a professor at University of Toronto specializing in infrastructure finance.

Environmental groups and indigenous communities have long railed against the project, which they say contradicts the country’s climate commitments.

The project has also pitted Alberta against British Columbia, which has called for a review of the environmental hazards of the project.

A number of First Nations communities have argued they were improperly consulted during the review process and have pledged to bring their fight to the courts.

The battle with environmental and indigenous groups has tarnished prime minister Justin Trudeau’s image as an ally in the fight against climate change, say critics.

“Trudeau is gambling billions of Canadian taxpayer dollars on an oil project that will never be built – a project that Kinder Morgan itself has indicated is ‘untenable’ and that faces more than a dozen lawsuits, crumbling economics, and a growing resistance movement that is spreading around the world,” said Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema in a statement.

Pipeline supporters, including the province of Alberta and the federal government, argue the project is a critical piece of infrastructure, needed to help Canadian oil reach new markets in Asia.

Since being elected in 2015, the federal government has sought to balance a national climate change plan – including carbon pricing, emissions caps and investment in renewable energy – with the continued development of the oil sands, one of the country’s largest economic engines.

But Siemiatycki warned that betting on fossil fuels further elevated the uncertainty surrounding the project’s success. “The pipeline expansion presumes there’s going to be a high demand for oil going forward for decades – but there’s significant risk that that may not prevail because of changing technologies and changing demand.”

While the landmark deal covers the cost of asset purchase, it doesn’t cover the costs of expanding the pipeline – projected to be in the billions – nor does it cover the costs of future court battles over the project.

In an attempt to allay the worries of investors, Morneau had already promised the government would indemnify any losses incurred as a result of delayed construction. On Tuesday, he said that protection would apply to future investors in the project: “It’s not the intention of government of Canada to be a long term owner of project.

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