Taoiseach asks Dáil to sit on Friday to debate abortion referendum

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has requested a special Friday sitting of the Dáil in an effort to press ahead with the planned abortion referendum.

Mr Varadkar said he wanted the Dáil to meet on that day to debate the legislation and ensure there were no delays in holding the referendum at the end of May as envisaged.

The Government has drafted a bill that would delete a section of the Constitution and insert a new article enabling the Oireachtas to regulate abortion services in Ireland.

It is awaiting the outcome of a Supreme Court judgment on the rights of the unborn in the Constitution.

The ruling is expected to be delivered in Limerick tomorrow.

The Cabinet will then meet on Thursday to finalise the referendum bill.

Currently, terminations are only allowed when the life of the mother is at risk, including from suicide, and the maximum penalty for accessing an illegal abortion is 14 years in prison.

Campaigners are seeking to liberalise the regime to allow for unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks into pregnancy.

If the referendum goes ahead, voters will be asked whether they want to remove the section of the Constitution which gives equal right to life to the mother and the unborn, and replace it with wording to allow the Dáil to regulate for the termination of pregnancy.

With the Dáil set to go into a period of recess next week due to the St Patrick's Day programme, the Taoiseach said he would like to establish the referendum commission formally on Friday.

"If we do not do that, we will lose around 10 days and that does jeopardise our ambition to have a referendum before the end of May," Mr Varadkar said.

The exact date of the referendum cannot be set until the bill is approved by both the Dáil and the Seanad.

It will require a debate and a vote to be held in both houses.

The Taoiseach made the comments after Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Brid Smith questioned whether the legislation would be passed through the Houses in time to have a referendum in May.

"We owe it to the people of Ireland to ensure that we have an early referendum," Ms Smith said.

"We owe it, in particular, to the young people of Ireland who have been campaigning extremely hard for it."

Independent TD Mattie McGrath said the proposed Dáil agenda showed contempt for the work of the Supreme Court.

"What the government parties and other groupings within the Dáil are doing is absolutely contemptible and demonstrates either unbridled arrogance or a very concerning degree of certainty around what the judgment of the Supreme Court will be," Mr McGrath said.

"I think most people will be appalled at the manner in which the business of the House is effectively being hijacked in order to rush through the debate on this referendum Bill and to satisfy what is manifestly a growing sense of panic within government circles around the prospects of the referendum being defeated."

The Government in January formally agreed to hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

The move came after the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment published its report recommending repeal of Article 40.3.3, which recognises the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn.

The report stated that Constitutional provision prohibiting the termination of pregnancy in Ireland was unfit for purpose and in need of reform.


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