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TDs plot to force abortion poll vote

In a dramatic twist in the abortion debate, Fine Gael, Labour and independent TDs and senators are proposing to invoke a little-known constitutional provision to force a referendum on the Government's proposed legislation for the X Case.

Under Article 27 of the Constitution, the President can decline to sign a Bill into law until it is approved by referendum – if he is petitioned by a third of the Dail (55 TDs) and a majority of the Seanad (30 senators).

After the failure of Fine Gael TD Peter Mathews to secure support last week for a Fine Gael free vote on the proposed abortion legislation, many within government circles believed dissent in the party had been quashed.

However, the Sunday Independent has learnt that, at several clandestine meetings in the last fortnight, several cross-party TDs have set in train an alternative strategy that would, in the words of one, "allow the people to make the final decision on the Government's legislation".

Those who are believed to have played a key role include the Labour TD Colm Keaveney and the Fine Gael TD John Paul Phelan.

A number of other substantial Fine Gael figures are also involved, but they are not prepared, for now, to be publicly identified, because of what they call a "climate of fear within Fine Gael on this issue".

Article 27 provides a mechanism by which a Bill can "be put to the people in a referendum [where] the Bill contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained". The procedure has never been used because the political reality means that a government majority in the Dail is reflected in a government majority in the Seanad.

To secure a referendum, the signatures of a majority of the members of the Seanad, and not less than a third of the members of the Dail, must be addressed to the President requesting that he decline to sign into law the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill.

One source close to the group told the Sunday Independent that "a line of communication has been opened to representatives, both pro-life and pro-choice and those in the middle, from Sinn Fein, independents, FF and FG."

The Sunday Independent has also learnt that the group has opened "preliminary discussions" with the "appropriate authorities in the Dail" to ensure "the correct procedural process is applied".

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Yesterday, Mr Keaveney said: "This is a politically neutral initiative involving pro-life, pro-choice and non-committed figures. It is about those who are concerned about the escalating democratic deficit in the country."

The petitioners are confident of securing a majority of the Seanad; however, the Dail is somewhat more problematic given the divided state of the opposition. The Sunday Independent has been told, however, that while "it will be difficult, it is achievable".

One source noted: "Signing such a motion should not pose a problem for the 30 Fine Gael TDs who have expressed their concerns on this issue."

They added: "This is not a matter covered by the whip system; it is not legislation or a motion of confidence, it is a request to refer a matter of deep public interest to the voters. No one is being disloyal to anyone by signing this motion."

Instead, they claimed, it would "demonstrate that this generation of representatives has a respect for the opinion of the people and for a new way of conducting politics – a democratic revolution if you like".

Critically, allowing the matter to go to a referendum, they said, "would allow Fine Gael TDs to claim they had fulfilled their promise to protect the unborn since the issue would be referred to the people".

The opposition, with 57 TDs, consisting of 24 independent, 19 FF and 14 Sinn Fein TDs would have the numbers to force such a vote.

Though a divided Fianna Fail party has not taken a definitive stance on the Bill, it would be extremely difficult for the party to oppose a referendum given the strength of feeling displayed at its recent ard fheis.

It is also believed from initial canvassing that a large proportion of independents may be "sympathetic" to the proposal while Sinn Fein too has strong reasons to heal internal wounds.

Ultimately it is expected that the support of a dozen Fine Gael TDs would be needed to get the required number of signatories.

In the wake of a tense Fine Gael meeting last week, there was much speculation in the wake of the failure of Peter Mathews to secure any support that opponents of the Bill had been seen off.

One source within the pro-life wing of the party said that "this didn't happen by accident, we haven't gone away you know''.

They added: "We weren't going to fall into the trap of supporting Peter. All the leadership were there in force. If that had come to a vote, we would have been routed and Enda could have claimed the Bill had secured the backing of the Fine Gael parliamentary party."

In an indication of the escalating tensions between the two wings of the Fine Gael party, another source noted that "there was a real atmosphere of the mob there; the leader had all his acolytes in there watching carefully".

A senior FG figure said: "Enda's defence of 'the people's book' – the Constitution – could come back to bite him yet; how can Enda stop TDs from using rights contained in 'the people's book' he is such a staunch defender of?''

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