Saturday 15 December 2018

Varadkar warns of 'major step back' if Eighth Amendment referendum is not passed

Leo Varadkar says Government wants to ‘proceed with caution’. Photo: Frank McGrath
Leo Varadkar says Government wants to ‘proceed with caution’. Photo: Frank McGrath

Kevin Doyle and Cormac McQuinn

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned there will be consequences if a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment is not passed.

Addressing a private meeting of Fine Gael TDs and senators, Mr Varadkar indicated the Government wants to proceed with caution on the issue.

But he said the "strong option" on the table is the Oireachtas Committee report which proposed unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

"The Taoiseach didn't state a personal view but hinted that the obvious next step is to hold a referendum on the basis of a 12-week termination period," a source said.

However, they added that Mr Varadkar "appeared to express concern" about what might happen if the referendum didn't pass.

"This isn't going away but how would you start all over again if it didn't pass?" asked one minister afterwards.

Mr Varadkar is understood to have said it will be "a major step back for those who want reform" if the proposals being put forward were defeated in a referendum.

"This is a decision to be made by the public," he said.

The five-hour meeting heard varying views from Fine Gael politicians, with many continuing to stall on declaring a definitive position. Among them was Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who raised concerns about what legislation would replace the Eighth Amendment.

"He was among a group who had real reservations and who believed the committee would have actually told us what question to put to the people," a source said.

Speaking before the meeting Mr Coveney told reporters: "There will be a number of months for the country to actually try to get its head around what is actually being proposed in the build-up to a referendum, and all senior political politicians will be involved in that debate and so will I."

Other senior figures to raise concerns yesterday included ministers Seán Kyne, Ciarán Cannon and Patrick O'Donovan.

Party chairman Martin Heydon described the debate as "very respectful" and one that reflected "a broad church".

"We heard many real life stories and from many of our colleagues who are very conflicted on this issue," he said.

It is understood Dublin Bay South TD Kate O'Connell and Galway East TD Mr Cannon were among those who told personal stories.

Mr Heydon declined to give his own view beyond a belief that a referendum should be held.

He confirmed that Mr Varadkar gave "a lot of weight" to the committee report because it was agreed by a cross-party membership.

"If you were to go away from the recommendations in that report you'd need a very good reason for doing so," Mr Heydon said.

The meeting began with a presentation from Hildegarde Naughton, who sat on the committee. She outlined how the widespread use of abortion pills bought online had helped change her view on the issue.

Ms O'Connell and Bernard Durkan, who also sat on the committee, outlined other evidence they believed justified allowing abortion on demand.

One source said: "There was some discussion as to whether the totality of the committee's recommendations should be adopted or legislation that's as close to it as possible.

"The only thing that's certain is there absolutely has to be a referendum."

Irish Independent

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