Council of State convened to advise president on abortion legislation

President Michael D Higgins will convene the Council of State today to advise him on whether he should refer the abortion legislation to the Supreme Court.

It is the first time President Higgins has convened the Council of State since he was elected.

He has until Wednesday to decide on whether to refer the Bill to the court, which would examine if it is agreeable with the Constitution.

The 24 group of advisors include current and former taoisigh, tánaistí, and supreme court chief justices. It also includes the president of the High Court, the ceann comhairle, the cathaoirleach of the Seanad, and attorneys general. A number on the council are also appointed by the President himself.

The president is not obliged to accept their opinion and has the final say on whether the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill should be tested by the Supreme Court.

If the President refers the bill to the Supreme Court, it will be obliged to hand down its ruling no later than 60 days after the date of reference.

Transport Minister Leo Varadkar has previously said that he thinks the Bill should be referred to the court, while Frances Fitzgerald, the minister for children, has said it is up to the President if he refers the legislation on to the Supreme Court.

The Council of State will meet today at 2.30pm at Áras an Uachtaráin. There is no set period which the group meets for and potentially, if needed, the council could return tomorrow to continue discussing the Bill.

Meetings of the council are held behind closed door. As with Cabinet discussions, no detailed record is held of what is said by its members. Furthermore, there is no record of who is against or for a piece of legislation being referred to the Supreme Court.

Over her two terms, President Mary McAleese asked for the advice of council members to discuss eight Bills during her time in office. Of these, she signed off on five of them and sent three to the Supreme Court to be tested.

The only one of these that was struck down was a 2005 Bill which was introduced to prohibit retrospective compensation payments to residents of nursing homes.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore will be among those who attend the council meeting today.

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