Saturday 21 September 2019

Referendum: The next stage

Leo Varadkar. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Leo Varadkar. Photo: Doug O'Connor
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, announced last month that a referendum on the Eighth Amendment will take place next May or June. Abortion is currently one of the most contentious issues in Irish life, yet there is still no clarity on what exactly citizens will be voting on in eight months' time.

The Government expects to have a proposed wording for the Referendum on the Eighth Amendment by December 20 and hopes to publish legislation underpinning the referendum by February.

It's a tight deadline on a complex and divisive topic. Since the Citizens' Assembly delivered an overwhelming verdict on liberalising our abortion laws last June, the lot has fallen to politicians to follow through on their recommendations.

A special cross party Oireachtas committee has until Christmas to examine each of the Assembly's recommendations and come up with a form of words for a referendum that will pass muster with the electorate.

Over in the Department of Health, meanwhile, officials are working with the Attorney General's office on draft legislation on a referendum Bill that they hope will be ready to go in February. Whatever form of words the committee comes up with, its proposals are likely to be far more conservative than the Assembly's unexpectedly liberal recommendations. The same goes for the legislation being examined by the Department. The Assembly voted 64pc in favour of unrestricted abortion, and 44pc of those voted in favour of terminations up to 22 weeks. The panel of citizens also recommended replacing the Eighth Amendment with a new constitutional provision that the Oireachtas must legislate for abortion.

The prevailing view in the body politic is that the Assembly's vote for sweeping liberalisation would be rejected if put to the electorate at large.

Many politicians are waiting for the committee to report before making their positions known. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail promise a free vote, allowing parliamentary party members to support - or not - whatever wording the committee comes up with. Sinn Fein and Labour are both campaigning for repeal and the enactment of legislation that will allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. There is a divergence of views within parties and across the smaller political groupings and Independent Alliance ministers. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has already indicated he's not in favour of complete liberalisation of abortion laws. Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, who chaired the Citizens' Assembly, favours repeal of article 40.3.3, giving the Oireachtas power to legislate.

Sunday Independent

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