Shortly before 10am yesterday morning, ministers gathered in the Cabinet room in Government buildings for their first meeting of the new year.
They chit-chatted before taking their seats around the grand Cabinet table. Just two ministers, Eoghan Murphy and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, were absent.
Welcomed by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the ministers saw off a number of routine items before grappling with the two major issues before them.
The trolly crisis and what to do with the Eighth Amendment.
It is understood Health Minister Simon Harris was put under some pressure on the ED crisis with demands for action not words, particularly from Independent ministers Shane Ross and Finian McGrath.
And while that discussion was robust, the one that followed around the main issue of the day demanded everyone’s full attention.
Ministers used the Christmas break to read the recommendations of the report by the Committee on the Eighth Amendment. Those recommendations were to repeal the 1983 amendment — which recognises the equal right to life of a mother and her unborn child — and to legalise abortions up to 12 weeks.
As line minister, it was Harris’s memo and so he kicked off the discussion, during which he added his own personal support for the recommendations.
Throughout the two-and-a-half hour discussion that followed, several ministers expressed concern around the 12-week limit.
“I think it is fair to say, for a lot of people not just in the Cabinet but in the country, the proposal to allow for terminations up to 12 weeks went further than many people would have anticipated, it certainly went further than I would have anticipated,” Varadkar said.
“There is a concern understandably among many politicians that perhaps for the majority of the public that proposal might go one step too far. But then again, perhaps not. That’s the debate we’re going to have over the next few months.”
Chief Whip Joe McHugh was said to be strongest in his expressions of concerns about the recommendation.
“Joe was the one who was probably most hostile to the 12 weeks proposal and it was clear he was representing many within the party who feel the same,” said one source.
Other ministers who expressed fears that the public may be scared off by the recommendation included Heather Humphreys, Education Minister Richard Bruton, Josepha Madigan and Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring.
“Richard said he had difficulties with the 12 weeks thing and many expressed their fears it won’t get over the line,” said a source.
The Taoiseach said little during the meeting and did not tell colleagues whether he intended to support or oppose the proposal.
Sources have said Junior Defence Minster Paul Kehoe also spoke of his concerns at the 12-week limit.
“Even if it makes sense from a legal and political point of view, given what the committee concluded, the fear expressed by colleagues is that the public will not be persuaded,” said another source.
Even some ministers who have publicly declared their support for changing the law like Paschal Donohoe said they had doubts the 12 week limit would pass muster with the voters, particularly “middle Ireland” voters.
Independent Alliance ministers Finian McGrath and Shane Ross both spoke in favour of the recommendation, with McGrath saying the 12-week recommendation was the only means to resolve difficult cases involving rape and incest.
During his contribution, McGrath said that he understood the Fine Gael concerns around rape and incest and he recognised the fears that “middle Ireland” would not go for the proposal as recommended, he argued that the only way to deal with them effectively is to support the 12-week proposal.
At the meeting, during which everyone spoke, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan added his voice for Ireland’s abortion laws to be liberalised.
Flanagan said he backed Oireachtas Committee recommendations to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the part of the Constitution that protects the life of the unborn.
Speaking afterwards, he said: “I support repeal. I don’t believe this is an issue that should be in our constitution. I want to acknowledge this has been a challenging issue, a very sensitive issue over the past 35 years.”
During the meeting, Business Minister Heather Humphreys, said plainly she wanted to trust and deliver for the women of Ireland.
“Do we trust women?” she asked of her colleagues. “I continue to consult with the people of my constituency. And I particularly want to consult further with the women because at the end of the day, it will be women who are most impacted on this issue. So I look forward to the PP meeting and to hear views on the matter.”
Ministers were also warned during the meeting that should they seek to alter the committee’s recommendations then they risk blowing whatever political cover they have.
“The benefit of the report is that it is all-party and we would be loath to deviate from it,” ministers were told.
“Once we deviate, it becomes our problem, but if we stick to the report, there is political cover.”
They broke up with some ministers very fearful of how nasty the campaign ahead is likely to be.
Fine Gael Party to hold special parliamentary party meeting to discuss the report of Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.
Three-day Dáil debate on the committee’s report.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to declare his position on report. Cabinet to decide its position on report and on what question to put to the people.
The Cabinet will approve a general scheme of legislation from Health Minister Simon Harris to replace the Eighth Amendment plus the wording of the question to be put to the people. A referendum bill will be passed in order to give powers to a referendum commission.
Government sources have said the most likely date for a referendum is Friday, May 25, but this could be pushed back by either seven or 10 days.
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