In a significant and unexpected move, Mr Martin told the Dáil that he supports a repeal of the amendment, replacing it with new laws based on a “time-based cut-off near the end of the first trimester” and allowing later-stage exemptions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and threats to the life of the mother.
Mr Martin broke ranks with the majority view in his party by saying he supports the plans.
“Retaining the Eighth Amendment will not make Ireland a country without abortion,” Mr Martin told the Dáil. “Nothing we say or do here could make Ireland a country without abortion.
“Following a long period of reflection and assessment of evidence before the Oireachtas committee, I believe that we should remove the Eighth Amendment from Bunreacht na hÉireann and I will vote accordingly.”
Mr Martin said he had previously supported the retention of the Eighth Amendment, but went on to say: “We each have a duty to be willing to question our own views, to be open to different perspectives and to respond to new information.”
I’m conscious that not everyone will agree with the view that I have come to on the 8th Amendment, but it is my honest view of what I think is the right thing to do. As a country, we owe it to each other to have a compassionate debate.— Micheál Martin (@MichealMartinTD) January 18, 2018
Adding that there is “no legal, practical, or humane way to prove rape or incest early on in a pregnancy”, and accepting the reality that the abortion pill is used by many women in Ireland, he said: “We must have a system which actively encourages women to seek support from medical professionals as soon as possible.
“As such, I support the idea of a time-based cut-off near the end of the first trimester.
“Beyond this, I believe we should make provision for cases of fatal foetal abnormality and serious threats to the health of the mother.”
The move puts considerable strain on Leo Varadkar, with several Fine Gael members last night voicing frustration at the lack of clarity from the Taoiseach.
A spokesman for Mr Varadkar reiterated that his position “remains as outlined” on Wednesday, when he said he would need to see the wording of the referendum “in black and white” before he makes any public utterances.
“I appreciate some people have decided to say how they will vote without having seen the wording. I’m a little more cautious,” said Mr Varadkar.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney has also indicated that he will make his opinions known once the Cabinet is shown draft wording of what would be put to the people in a referendum.
However, in the wake of Mr Martin’s Dáil speech — which surprised not just the opposition but many in his own party who did not know it was coming — Mr Coveney’s brother, Patrick, tweeted his support, describing it as a “big, brave, personal statement”.
Fianna Fáil Cork South-West TD Margaret Murphy O’Mahony, who has spoken out against repealing the Eighth Amendment, said she respected the views of Mr Martin and the fact that Fianna Fáil has been given a free vote on the matter.
“I commend him on allowing me my view, even though it is different to his,” she said. “The country is still waiting on our Taoiseach to give his views.”
Her Fianna Fáil colleague, Eugene Murphy, added: “Micheál’s speech was powerful and I think he was right to give his position, although I would not have exactly the same personal opinion as him.
“Leo will have to clarify his view, he cannot wait for legislation, he is the Taoiseach after all, he has access to top legal opinion.”
After his 20-minute Dáil speech, Mr Martin tweeted: “I’m conscious that not everyone will agree with the view that I have come to on the 8th Amendment, but it is my honest view of what I think is the right thing to do.
“As a country, we owe it to each other to have a compassionate debate.”