Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald is facing calls from within her own party to clarify its policy on abortion in advance of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
In what is shaping up to be one of the first tests of Ms McDonald’s leadership, some who are anti-abortion and pro-choice believe an ard fheis to change policy should be held before the May 25th referendum.
Sinn Féin is currently in favour of repealing the amendment, which gives equal rights to life to the mother and the unborn, and allowing for abortion in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormalities and where the life or health of the mother is at risk.
However, it is currently not in favour of allowing for abortion without restrictions during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – which is the policy that will be put before the Dáil by the Government if the referendum passes.
If Sinn Féin does not take a position before May 25th, it means none of the three biggest parties in the Dáil will officially be in favour of the government legislation by referendum day.
However, both Dublin Mid West TD Eoin Ó Broin and Mid Ulster Westminster MP Francie Molloy, who is anti-abortion, say they would prefer if the party policy is clear before the referendum.
Mr Ó'Broin, who is favour of the 12-week proposal, told RTÉ his preference is for the party to hold an ard fheis before the referendum.
Party sources had previously indicated an ard fheis would be held before the referendum to update its policy. While most party figures insist the problem has arisen because of logistical difficulties in finding a venue, some sources said the 12-week proposition had encountered some negative reactions from members.
"The party has got feelers back from members and elected representatives who think that is a bridge too far," one claimed, adding that while anti-abortion views may be stronger among members in Northern Ireland, a sizeable number of southern members are also uneasy about the 12-week proposal. This claim was rejected by others.
Some who believe the 12-week proposal would pass an ard fheis also privately acknowledged that there are members who may need time to fully understand the rationale for it.
Mr Molloy said he doubts the 12-week issue will be as "clear cut" as previous votes to change abortion policy.
“I was still expecting it to happen and would be keen for it to happen,” Mr Molloy said of another ard fheis.
After the confusion of recent days, senior figures from Sinn Féin met yesterday and said afterwards that the ard chomhairle will meet on March 19th to decide to have an ard fheis before or after the referendum.
Either way, a spokesman said it would still take place before any legislation is taken in the Dáil in the event of the Eighth Amendment being repealed.
The next ard fheis will not just deal with abortion, but will take in other policy issues. It could also be the last before the next general election.
It was also pointed out that an ard fheis held during the broadcast constraints of a referendum campaign will mean the party will not get the usual television coverage – such as the live, prime time broadcast of the leader’s address – given by RTÉ.