Fine Gael ‘could be damaged by wrong referendum strategy’

Former Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett.

The special Fine Gael meeting on abortion heard concerns that the party could be politically damaged if it gets its strategy wrong on a planned referendum later this year.

Former ceann comhairle Sean Barrett made the comments during a long meeting of TDs, senators and MEPs at Leinster House on the referendum and recommendations to liberalise abortion laws. Some party members also clashed, with pro-choice TD Kate O’Connell and pro-life Senator Paul Coughlan exchanging differences on the issue of abortion pills and medical services for women.

“There was a bit of sword clashing between the two, over women getting abortion pills and whether they would also have the support of a doctor,” said one attendee.

The five-hour meeting heard a range of views and was attended by over 60 members of the parliamentary party.

But there is a consensus that the Government still has a “long way to go”, said one party member, before any decision is made on the wording of the referendum as well as what may follow.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was “conciliatory” in tone and was cautious in his comments and was in a “listening mode”, said sources.

But he also said Fine Gael should stick to the recommendations of an Oireachtas Committee on abortion and that voters would want to know what would replace the Eighth Amendment in the Constitution.

Dun Laoghaire TD Sean Barrett outlined how the Eighth Amendment was introduced when he was a TD and government chief whip in 1983. But the former Dáil chairman also had a warning for colleagues.

He told the meeting that “if Fine Gael get it wrong, it could damage the party,” said a source.

The meeting heard from government members that Attorney General Seamus Woulfe was still considering recommendations by the Oireachtas committee to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, and for unrestricted abortion to be allowed for pregnancies up to 12 weeks.

However, despite promises of an open vote for the party by the Taoiseach, those at the meeting said no solution or path forward was revealed by Health Minister Simon Harris. “They don’t know how to play this, there was nothing clarified.”

However, Mr Harris did say that it was difficult to frame the legislation for what the committee had recommended. A timeline of May or June for the vote was also reiterated,

Tánaiste Simon Coveney gave one of the longest contributions and expressed concerns on both sides.

He said he had concerns about protecting the life of the unborn as well as any stress that would be caused to women.

The meeting though did not hear any proposals for a ‘plan B’, said sources, despite a number of Fine Gael TDs and senators saying they had concerns about the 12-week limit allowed for abortions.

Former finance minister and Limerick TD Michael Noonan also warned about complications surrounding a Supreme Court case on the meaning of the word “unborn” in the Constitution.


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