Harris: 'I want to be the minister who holds abortion vote'
Simon Harris wants to be the minister who brings forward legislation that will facilitate a referendum on abortion.
The Health Minister told the Irish Independent he would work to ensure a vote on the contentious issue takes place next year - but he wanted to carefully lay the groundwork for a civil debate.
"This is an issue that, as a nation, we now need to deal with definitively. This must be a respectful debate and I am determined that we will prove ourselves capable of addressing these issues in a respectful way," Mr Harris said.
In his first speech as Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar signalled he would be giving responsibility for dealing with the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution to Mr Harris.
The amendment gives equal right to life to a woman and her unborn child. A new Oireachtas committee is being set up to try to find a political consensus on what question a referendum should ask.
The recent Citizens' Assembly proposed a liberal regime that would effectively offer abortion on demand, but the Dáil is likely to put a more conservative option to the public.
Mr Harris said it was "very important" that the Special Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment started its work to examine the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly.
"I want to be the minister who brings forward the legislation to enable this important referendum in 2018," he said.
Mr Harris could not set a timeline for what stage in 2018.
However, ministerial colleagues told the Irish Independent they would like to see it held in the first half of the year in order to avoid a clash with the visit of Pope Francis in August.
"Everything about this will be tricky because Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have a free vote so there is no guarantee what will pass through the Dáil," said one minister.
Sources noted that even getting the Cabinet to agree to the wording of a referendum could prove difficult.
The cross-party committee, which is made up of TDs and senators, is due to begin its work in the coming weeks and will bring a report to the Dáil later this year.
During the Fine Gael leadership hustings Mr Varadkar said that he struggled with the question of abortion, and would allow all of his TDs to vote on the issue based on personal convictions.
The Taoiseach said he had "an evolving view on this issue".
"I find it very difficult," he said, adding that while he would support a victim of rape who became pregnant seeking a termination, he did not back abortion on demand.