Friday 15 December 2017

Assembly's giant leap on abortion may have created challenge too great for Dáil

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald Picture: Gerry Mooney
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald Picture: Gerry Mooney
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

A referendum offering abortion on demand as proposed by the Citizens' Assembly is "highly unlikely" to occur, Government sources admit.

While ministers are talking up the possibility of a vote next year, privately there is a belief the Assembly will deliver an unachievable report. Fianna Fáil is also sceptical the Dáil would back the idea of asking voters whether they want abortions to be widely accessible.

The party's health spokesman, Billy Kelleher, said the Assembly provided a "roadmap" for politicians, but "there are several roads".

He suggested legalising abortions on "socio-economic grounds" as recommended "would be difficult" given the make-up of the Dáil.

There was an expectation in Government circles that the Assembly would vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, which gives equal rights to a mother and her unborn child. But few predicted the 100 members to go much further than allowing terminations in the cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities.

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, who would be in the liberal wing of Fine Gael, described the actual outcome as "very interesting".

"I think it deserves very serious consideration," she said. "My own view has always been that the Constitution is not the place to deal with this very complex issue, the best place is between a woman and her doctors, but of course you also have to have an appropriate legislative basis."

However, others within her party will stringently oppose the idea abortions should be available without restrictions. Leadership frontrunner Leo Varadkar previously described himself as "pro-life" and said he opposes abortion on demand.

Yesterday he said: "I think it is essential the debate ahead is conducted in a manner respectful of different points of view. Over the next few months, the all-party Oireachtas committee will consider the Assembly's advice and refine it into a proposal that can be put to the people. I believe once this has been done, a final proposal should be put in a referendum in 2018 so the people can have their say."

Fine Gael has still to nominate its four TDs and one senator to the Oireachtas committee which will consider the matter, but names in the mix include Kate O'Connell, Bernard Durkan, Jerry Buttimer and Catherine Noone.

Fianna Fáil has already selected Lisa Chambers, Anne Rabbitte and James Brown, alongside Mr Kelleher. Ms Chambers, who favours repeal, said the Assembly had a "difficult job" and she believes its report should have a "strong bearing" on the work of the Oireachats commitee.

But others in the party are steadfast in their view that the Eighth Amendment should be retained in full. Fellow first-time TD Margaret Murphy O'Mahony previous said it would probably be a red-line issue for her because "no doctor" could predict how long a baby will live outside the womb.

The fact TDs in the two main parties can't even find a middle-ground shows why a workable compromise within three months is expecting a lot from the new committee.

And that's before you mix in groups like People Before Profit, which sees no room for compromise.

Bríd Smith reacted to the Assembly vote, saying: "The logic of what the Citizens' Assembly has said about abortion rights for women is that there should be no replacement clause in the Constitution and that the Eighth Amendment should simply be repealed."

In truth it voted by 57pc that it should be replaced "with a constitutional provision that explicitly authorises the Oireachtas to legislate to address termination of pregnancy, any rights of the unborn, and any rights of the woman".

Fianna Fáil is unlikely to want to battle an election where the question of the Eighth Amendment looms large. In reality, the shaky numbers in Leinster House mean it may have no choice.

The Citizens' Assembly delivered a result that drew celebrations from the pro-choice movement. Yet by trying to take one giant leap for Irish society rather than an incremental step, the Assembly may have created a challenge too great for the political class.

What happens next?

The Citizens' Assembly has completed its five weekends of meetings to consider the Eighth Amendment on abortion.

Its chairperson, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, is now beginning the process of drafting its report.

The results of last weekend's votes will be the most significant content of the report, which is to be finished by the end of June at the latest. Once it's finalised the report will be presented to the Oireachtas.

Meanwhile, political parties are currently considering which TDs and senators will sit on a special Oireachtas committee that will debate the Assembly's recommendations.

It in turn will produce its own report for the Dáil, a process that may take some months if the recent experience of the committee on the future of funding water is anything to go by. There have already been suggestions that a three-month deadline would be too short given the complexity of the abortion issue.

It will be up to the Dáil and the Government to recommend any constitutional change that will require a referendum.

A referendum on abortion is likely to take place next year.

Irish Independent

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