EUROPEAN Affairs Minister Lucinda Creighton is poised to lead a string of Fine Gael TDs in voting against the Government's abortion bill.
It means as many as 10 Fine Gael deputies could lose the party whip, a rebellion that would put a huge dent in its parliamentary ranks.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has rejected suggestions of major changes to the contentious legislation – which could spark the biggest Dail rebellion in living memory.
Mr Kenny has informed some TDs they will not be Fine Gael candidates in the next election if they defy the party whip.
Senior government sources admit they could lose as many as 10 TDs, but say the more likely figure is six.
The fallout could reduce the number of Fine Gael TDs from its current level of 74 to as low as 64 – although the Government would still have a comfortable majority. Four TDs have already committed to voting against the bill, while as many as six more are waiting for their concerns to be met as the legislation goes through the Oireachtas over the next fortnight.
Ms Creighton made a strident speech in the Dail that could ultimately see her split from the Fine Gael parliamentary part and lose her ministerial job.
Ms Creighton said "Fine Gael was a party which unashamedly defended the right to life and issued repeated statements to that effect over the years, including stridently in advance of the last general election".
She said she did not want to "give up" on the Government's work for economic recovery, but she was "making a decision on life and death".
"All I can do . . . is consult my conscience, which is based on my sense of what is right and what is wrong. What else can I consult?"
Internal Fine Gael exchanges are becoming increasingly bitter, with Justice Minister Alan Shatter describing some of Ms Creighton's claims as "extraordinary", while backbenchers accused the whip system of "bullying".
Some Fine Gael TDs who have difficulties with the issue of suicide as grounds for abortion acknowledged that Mr Kenny has already shut down the prospect of substantial changes to the bill. Ms Creighton asked for the suicide clause to be removed, but Mr Kenny said: "This is not possible, and would, in my view, be counterproductive."
Mr Kenny also rejected calls for confirmation of a legal term limit for abortion, and sought to allay fears the legislation could lead to a liberal abortion regime.
"If I, as a person who is opposed to abortion, thought for one moment that this bill would lead to a liberal abortion regime in Ireland, I would not be asking the House to enact it," he said.
As the most senior TD to express major reservations, Ms Creighton's stance could also encourage others to defy party bosses and she has become a focal point for potential rebels.
Deputies Peter Mathews, Brian Walsh, Terence Flanagan and Billy Timmins have already said they will vote against the Government, while others like Ms Creighton, John Paul Phelan, John O'Mahony, James Bannon, Michelle Mulherin, Sean Conlan and Ray Butler are waiting to see if the bill can still be changed or clarified.
Some wavering TDs feel they can secure some changes before the final vote ahead of the Dail recess later this month.
Other TDs whose support for the bill was thought to be in doubt – such as Damien English and Peter Fitzpatrick – have since indicated they will back it.
The first vote on the bill will be this evening, but many will vote it through at this stage before making a final call once the legislation has gone through the Oireachtas Health Committee, when amendments can be tabled.
Health Minister James Reilly met numerous TDs – including Ms Creighton – yesterday to discuss their concerns, but sources said he did not give any indications of changing the legislation substantially.
Ms Creighton, who asked for other substantial changes, flew to Strasbourg last night with Mr Kenny for his European Parliament speech, wrapping up the Irish Presidency of the EU.