Government parties block abortion bill vote amid fears it would split the Government

Tonight's abortion bill will not be voted on by the Dáil after Government parties agreed to block any ballot in return for fast-tracking plans to act on the Citizen's Assembly's findings next year, writes Fiachra Ó Cionnaith of the Irish Examiner.

The move was confirmed in a joint statement from all sections of the Coalition this afternoon as part of a deal that is attempting to stave off criticism pro-choice ministers are failing to act on their beliefs.

Under widely publicised plans, the opposition AAA-PBP has put down a bill for debate in the Dáil this evening seeking to remove the Eighth Amendment and to legalise abortion in Ireland.

However, Government has said the bill should not be voted on because it would circumvent the work of the Citizens' Assembly, which was established earlier this month and is due to report on abortion next year.

Concerns had grown in recent weeks that today's debate would lead to a fresh split in Cabinet, following on from a similar situation last summer when Independents4Change TD Mick Wallace put down a similar abortion reform bill.

This is because Independent Alliance ministers Finian McGrath and John Halligan are known to be pro-choice, while unaligned Independent TD and Children's Minister Katherine Zappone is also strongly in favour of abortion law reforms.

The three ministers had come under mounting pressure over the issue, with opposition parties targeting them to stand firm on their beliefs and vote in favour of this evening's bill instead of waiting until the Citizen's Assembly completes its work.

The targeting of the ministers was seen by some as an attempt to push through abortion law changes, while others claimed it was a bid to further destablise the Government.

Any vote on tonight's bill was therefore under an intense spotlight over how ministers would act.

However, after a day of intense negotiations on Monday, Government released a joint statement this afternoon saying all members of the Coalition will vote in favour of a Government counter motion to this evening's bill which will re-affirm the need to wait until the Citizen's Assembly concludes its work - effectively blocking any vote.

The move means internal Cabinet calls from the Independent Alliance for a free vote on the bill will also not happen, while further calls for the Citizen's Assembly to report earlier next year in light of the attention the abortion issue is receiving has also been rejected.

However, in return for the apparent backing down on the issue, Fine Gael has agreed to fast-track plans to create a new Dáil committee to examine the Citizen's Assembly's findings next year.

Work on this new committee, which will be set up by the cross-party business committee and will allow all members of Government to campaign freely for their views to be heard, will begin today.

In addition, the new committee will have a strict six-month timeframe to complete its work once the Citizen's Assembly provides its findings to it next summer.

This means that any decision on changing Ireland's abortion laws will be voted on by the Dáil at the end of next year.

The full Government statement can be read below:

Government Statement

There are differing views within the Government on the substantive issue of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution.

The Government is moving this Reasoned Amendment because this Bill pre-empts the work of the Citizens’ Assembly, the agreed, independent process set out in the Programme for Partnership Government for dealing with this issue and approved by both the Dáil and Seanad.

The Citizens’ Assembly is currently deliberating on the 8th Amendment as its first topic and is expected to deliver its Report on the issue in the first half of 2017. The Government will then immediately refer the Report to a Special Oireachtas Committee which will be asked to respond to the deliberations and recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly within six months.

The Government will today ask the Business Committee to set in train the preparatory work necessary for the establishment of this Committee, including its structure and work programme, in order that the Committee will be in a position to commence its work without delay once the Citizens’ Assembly delivers its Report on the 8th Amendment.

The Government will not adopt a collective policy position for the Committee deliberations and all Government deputies will be free to promote their own policy objectives during that process.

The Government has agreed that, when a decision is being made in the Dáil on the outcome of the Citizens' Assembly and Special Oireachtas Committee processes, all members of the Government, and all deputies supporting the Government, will exercise their votes freely in accordance with their consciences.

Fine Gael also acknowledges, more generally, that its Independent colleagues in Government are not subject to a party whip and that, on matters which are not addressed either in the Programme for Partnership Government or by decisions of Cabinet, they will continue to exercise a free vote.

Reasoned Amendment

“Delete the words after “That” and substitute the following:

"Dáil Éireann declines to give the Bill a second reading in order that the Citizens' Assembly, established by Resolutions of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, may conclude its deliberations on the 8th Amendment of the Constitution, which is the subject matter of this Bill, and report to the Oireachtas in the first half of 2017.”

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