Simon Coveney's plan for ‘legal lock’ on abortion law in tatters

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has been left humiliated after his two-thirds Dáil majority ‘legal lock’ plan for the Government’s post-referendum abortion law was labelled “unconstitutional”, naive, and deeply damaging to the Yes campaign.

Mr Coveney was forced into an embarrassing U-turn hours after putting the plan forward after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, cabinet colleagues, opposition parties, and pro-life groups all said it is not workable under any circumstances.

As revealed in yesterday’s Irish Examiner, in return for his new-found support for the post-referendum unrestricted access to abortion up to the 12th week of pregnancy, Mr Coveney said that he wanted to make any new legislation more difficult to change.

As part of the hoped-for deal, the Tánaiste wanted the new law to include a guarantee that it could not be changed in the future without the express permission of at least two thirds of the Dáil.

Sources close to Mr Coveney hoped the suggestion would end claims from pro-life groups that the potential new law could be watered down to allow for further access to abortion by a more liberal future government.

However, hours after the plan was put forward, it was immediately slapped down as “unconstitutional”, naive, and a danger to the yes campaign. In a frank exchange in the Dáil, Mr Varadkar was faced down by opposition leaders about the two-thirds majority suggestion, all of whom warned would be unworkable.

Asked by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin “if it would be unconstitutional”, by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald “how on earth can you propose something that clearly contradicts the Constitution”, and Labour leader Brendan Howlin, who said it “very clearly cannot happen”.

Mr Varadkar failed to back his Tánaiste, saying it “could not be and will not be included as doing so would require another constitutional amendment”.

The refusal to support Mr Coveney was compounded by further Dáil criticism from Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett who said the suggestion would “endanger the yes vote”, and Independent Mattie McGrath who said “a transition-year student would know this is completely unconstitutional”.

Government colleagues, TDs, and pro-life groups lashed the now-scrapped two-thirds Dáil majority plan. Government sources said Mr Coveney went “from hero to zero” as the plan — discussed for an hour at Cabinet yesterday — undermined his 12-week proposal support and his Tánaiste position. A cabinet source described the suggestion as “ill-thought out and unnecessary” while another said the attorney general Seamus Woulfe made it clear the plan was “not a flier”.

In a bid to calm the anger over Mr Coveney’s botched proposal, Health Minister Simon Harris last night told reporters he has asked the attorney general to examine other possible ways to ensure future governments will have to go “above and beyond” existing rules to change the proposed 12- weeks law.

Responding to the criticism last night, a spokesperson for Mr Coveney said: “The option of a legislative lock was discussed earlier, but this would require constitutional change and is not possible in the timeframe. It in no way alters the Tánaiste’s full support for the heads being brought forward by Minister Harris.”

The Government last night published the draft heads of bill for the 12 weeks post-referendum law as the separate referendum bill was debated in the Seanad. The draft includes plans to ban late-term abortions and guarantees women seeking an abortion will face a three- day ‘cooling off’ period.

Should the referendum bill be passed by the Seanad, Mr Harris will formally announce the Friday, May 25, referendum polling day before the weekend.

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