Varadkar: Don’t delay referendum bill debate

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has appealed to pro-life TDs and senators not to deliberately delay the abortion referendum bill debate in a bid to prevent the public having their say potentially as soon as May 25.

The Taoiseach said the potential risk is a “realistic possibility” as he warned that pro-life politicians may drag their heels, propose endless changes to the bill or filibuster during speeches to block an early vote.

Speaking to reporters at University College Cork during the first in a series of Project Ireland 2040 events, Mr Varadkar said he is relieved the Supreme Court did not block the referendum from taking place in its judgement earlier this week.

However, accepting the timeframe to ensure a May 25 referendum remains difficult and “ambitious”, he said there is still a real risk that the hoped-for polling date will not be met because of potential deliberate Dáil and Seanad delays.

“I wouldn’t say I’m afraid [of delays in the Dáil by pro-life TDs], but it’s a realistic possibility,” said Mr Varadkar. “There are some TDs who it won’t be enough for them just to contribute to the debate, they will try and prevent it progressing through the Dáil and Seanad and I would really appeal to them not to do that because of whatever your views may be on this issue,” he added.

After yesterday’s debate, there are now just 12 Dáil sitting days for the parliament to discuss the Government’s referendum bill and to ensure it is passed in time for a widely suggested Friday, May 25 polling day.

This is because the Dáil will not sit next week due to the St Patrick’s Day break, it will then sit for six days over the following two weeks, and will then break for two weeks for the Easter holidays.

The Dáil will then return on Tuesday, April 17, leaving just six more sitting days before the Thursday, April 26 cut-off point for a May 25 referendum to be called — a situation caused by the fact that a referendum must be held between 30 and 90 days of a referendum bill being signed into law.

While it is expected the bill will be passed in time to allow for the May 25 vote, which would make it easier for students to vote, the fact the bill must go through the Dáil, Dáil committee stage and then through the same process in the Seanad means the schedule is still at risk.

Meanwhile, it is understood that Fine Gael TDs and senators will meet with officials next week to discuss who will lead the party’s referendum campaign.

While Fine Gael does not have an agreed party position, late last month Mr Varadkar asked colleagues to meet on the matter — an issue delayed because of the snow and the Supreme Court decision.

It is separately understood that early next month Health Minister Simon Harris will publish plans linked to the referendum and proposed 12 weeks abortion access in response to the Oireachtas abortion committee’s ancillary findings.

The extra plans include free contraception, improved perinatal services and school sex education reform, and are currently being examined by an internal Department of Health group led by chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan.

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