Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and two of his ministers have questioned whether the Eighth Amendment referendum will be passed if it allows unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, writes Fiachra Ó'Cionnaith
Mr Varadkar, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Fine Gael’s deputy leader Simon Coveney said they doubt the vote will be backed by the public if the Citizens’ Assembly recommendation is included in any final referendum wording.
At a media briefing in which Mr Varadkar also indicated he wants to hold a November 2018 referendum to cut the divorce waiting time to two years, he denied the abortion referendum could split his party, as TDs will be allowed to campaign on both sides. He said there is genuine doubt the 12-week law change will be backed.
“I honestly don’t know if the public would go as far as what the Citizens’ Assembly has recommended. Public opinion polls have indicated that they wouldn’t, but that may change during the course of the debate,” said Mr Varadkar.
His position was mirrored by Foreign Affairs Minister Mr Coveney and Ms Fitzgerald, both of whom also raised doubts over public support for the 12-week recommendation.
“I would be surprised if, without a lot of reassurance and a lot of debate, the public would broadly be willing to support that proposal. That is only a personal view,” said Mr Coveney.
“I think the straight answer to your question is that I’m not sure there would be majority support for that at the moment but let’s wait and see how the discussion progresses.”
Ms Fitzgerald added that there is “a difference between recommendations from the Citizens’ Assembly and framing the response to put the choice to the people”.
The comments from Mr Varadkar and two of his most senior ministers are likely to intensify the focus on the cross-party Oireachtas committee on the future of the eighth amendment, which sat for the first time last week.
It is due to provide its own recommendations to the Dáil in the coming months, before a likely abortion referendum — the wording of which remains up for debate — in May or June next year.
While Fine Gael will allow a free vote on the issue, meaning its TDs and senators will also be allowed to campaign for either side of the referendum, Mr Varadkar yesterday rejected claims that the referendum campaign risks dividing his party.
Meanwhile, speaking at the same media briefing at the end of Fine Gael’s two-day pre-Dáil think-in in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, Mr Varadkar confirmed that he does not intend to put another referendum to the public on the same day as the abortion vote, due to the “sensitivity” of the issue.
Asked about reports that he plans to hold a referendum aiming to halve the divorce waiting time in Ireland to just two years, in November 2018, he said the exact timing will be confirmed in the coming weeks.
“The Government has accepted that bill in principle, that we’d have a referendum to change that and get rid of that four-year rule [the current divorce waiting time].
“We haven’t set a date for the referendum yet, but one of the items going before Cabinet in the next number of weeks is a memo setting out the schedule for referenda to take place over the next couple of years,” he said.
Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan, who has urged the divorce law change, had earlier told reporters that she has been told by Mr Varadkar the November 2018 date is planned.
“It is going to go to a referendum, the Taoiseach has said to me, he hopes in November 2018. I would be really delighted with that. Obviously, I would like it before that, but there are a lot of other referendums to get through, so I am delighted,” Ms Madigan said.
The potential decision to hold a divorce referendum in November 2018 is part of plans previously stated by Mr Varadkar for a series of referenda in 2018 and 2019.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner