Cabinet faces deep divisions as abortion tops meeting agenda

This morning, the Cabinet will meet for the first time since the Christmas break, and at the top of the agenda is abortion, writes Daniel McConnell.

Having taken the break to study the contents of the Oireachtas committee report on the eighth amendment, ministers will hold their first discussions as to what to do next.

While Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Health Minister Simon Harris have signalled their intention to hold a referendum before the summer, the Cabinet has yet to formally decide on the matter.

Mr Harris, in a published interview in this paper, has set out his stall in that he favours liberalising the law along the lines of what the committee recommended.

“I will be supporting. I have come on my own journey. I cannot ignore that abortion is a reality for women in this country. Irish women go abroad and women access the abortion pill in an unregulated fashion in Ireland,” he said.

“My own personal view is that we should legislate along the lines of what the committee is recommending. My own view is that the committee’s report should be taken very seriously and acted upon.”

Members of the Oireachtas committee on the eighth amendment with their report

This means he backs repealing the 1983 amendment which recognises the equal right to the life of a mother and her unborn child. It also means legalising abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, a recommendation which is already proving to be controversial within the Cabinet.

“That is the most challenging element,” said one minister, adding: “While it is a straightforward way of dealing with it as an issue legally, that will cause most concern at Cabinet from a political perspective.”

Yesterday, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe revealed where he stands. A known liberal on social issues, he has come out to support the committee’s recommendations and in favour of allowing abortion without restriction for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

“I believe the committee’s report and the recommendations contained in it should be put to the people and I support those recommendations that are in the committee’s report,” he said.

Sitting beside him at a press conference, Donohoe’s junior minister Patrick O’Donovan disagreed: “Look at it, every household in the country is going to have different views on this. I have a different view on this to Minister Donohoe and I will be articulating my view later on.”

The divergence in opinion between Mr Donohoe and Mr O’Donovan is likely to be replicated throughout Fine Gael and while the party’s outlook is a lot more progressive than it was, those deep divisions still remain.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has been open as to his difficulties with the 12-week limit while ministers believed to have some difficulties with the proposal include Michael Ring, Denis Naughten and Michael Creed.

The Cabinet will not adopt a finalised position today on the report but will allow for a three-day Dáil debate plus a special meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party next Monday.

The granting of a free vote by Varadkar means there is a possibility a number of his ministers could campaign against the proposal being put to the people.

Such a position has the possibility of turning very nasty.

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