Taoiseach doubtful eighth amendment will be passed with citizens' assembly recommendations

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and two of his most senior Government colleagues 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.

Speaking at a media briefing in which Mr Varadkar also confirmed he wants to hold a referendum to cut the divorce waiting time to two years in November 2018, he said there is genuine doubt an abortion referendum will be backed if it seeks the 12 week law change.

"I honestly don’t know if the public would go as far as what the citizens' assembly have recommended. Public opinion polls have indicated that they wouldn’t, but that may change during the course of the debate," Mr Varadkar said.

His position was mirrored by Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and Tánaiste Frances 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.

"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," said Mr Coveney, with Ms Fitzgerald adding 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, Mr Varadkar yesterday rejected claims 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 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 he plans to hold a referendum aiming to half 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 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 to hold a series of referenda next year and in 2019.

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