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Abortion referendum debate enters final stages

Inside Politics: Yes and No sides have put new emphases in campaigns over the past week

The tragic death of Jastine Valdez has touched everybody and dominates all headlines and public discourse this morning.

In politics, however, it is abortion that is the big theme with only three days left to polling day.

If you were to judge support levels for the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment on social media traffic, the Yes side would have an overwhelming victory.

But everybody knows the contest will be closer than that, with Yes probably ahead but the gap between both sides closing.


If doubt is creeping into the minds of undecideds and soft Yes voters, it might be uncomfortably close from a Yes campaign perspective.

Overall, you sense this campaign has not quite captured all public attention in the way the same-sex referendum did in 2015, and abortion referendums have done in the past.

For all the noise, could the turnout still relatively be low? Remember it was only 53 per cent in 1983. The overall turnout will be partly dependent on turnout from the youngest voters.

Voter registration campaigns as well as a huge focus on the young suggests they might vote in somewhere near the same volumes as they did three years ago. If that happens, a Yes victory will be more likely.

The big event today is the second televised debate on the Eighth Amendment on Prime Time tonight.

This will be critical for the Yes side, which was seen as the marginal loser in the opening debate on the Claire Byrne Show.

The line-up tonight features a politician and a leading campaigner on either side. On the Yes side it is Minister for Health Simon Harris and obstetrician Dr Mary Higgins from the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street.

On the now No side it is Sinn Fein TD Peadar Toibin and Cora Sherlock, a solicitor, from the Love Both Campaign.

As Sarah Bardon reports, the debate will last one hour, with a live studio audience of 90 people.

Both sides of the campaign chose 45 people each to participate in the debate.

“RTE sources said this would be a different format from the Claire Byrne Show, which came in for significant criticism from politicians favouring a Yes vote.”

“It will follow the style of a leaders’ debate, where each will make their opening pitch and answer questions from members of the audience.”

So the kind of rowdiness that characterised the first debate will not be allowed.

Incidentally, one of the noticeable things about this campaign has been the disengagement of most politicians from the mainstream parties.

Besides a handful of Fine Gael Ministers and senior Fianna Fail figures, few people from either of the big parties were very active. The converse could be said of Sinn Fein, Labour, the Greens and Solidarity-PBP, all of which were very active.

There will also be a debate on Wednesday night on TV3, hosted by Pat Kenny.

So where is the referendum heading? Well the polls all suggest a Yes victory, but polls in referendums need to be treated with caution, as soft preferences sometimes go the other way, and waverers have plumped for the status quo by voting No in the past.

That said, it does look like Yes has done enough to stay marginally ahead.

The core messages of both sides have remained unchanged, although there are new emphases in messages in the past week.

The Yes side has moved away from exceptional cases to talk more about abortion pills and putting the proposition that abortion exists in Ireland and the choice is between continuing it illegally or in Britain, or continuing it legally.

The No side has softened its approach a little with a message to voters that if they want change for those exceptional cases, they should reject the referendum and go back to the drawing board.

The Shane Ross show rolls on

Well it’s Shane Ross versus the world, round two.

His two big projects are before the Dail today: the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2017 and the Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill. Both are at report stage, which means they are tantalisingly close to becoming law.

So let’s recap on what they are. Ross has strong views on judicial appointments and believes political cronies have been appointed to the bench.

His judicial Bill has been controversial, to put it mildly, and has led to tensions not only with Fianna Fail but also with Fine Gael. But it’s in the programme for government, and the larger party has no choice but to support it.

The most contentious provision is that the appointments commission should have a lay majority and a lay chairman.

And until last week there was no room for the presidents of the Circuit Court and District Court or for the Attorney General.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan insisted on the inclusion of all three, but then he had to increase the number of lay members to ensure it had its majority. The net result was an increase in the commission to an incredible, and unworkable, 17.

Ross has had rows, public and private. He had heated words with Flanagan outside the chamber, reported heated words with chief whip Joe McHugh as well as a bad-tempered spat with Fianna Fail’s Jim O’Callaghan in the chamber, in which he accused the Dublin Bay South TD - who is a senior counsel - of representing the vested interests of the briefs and beaks.

But that was nothing compared to his tasty exchange with Mattie McGrath, as reported word-for-word last week by Fiach Kelly.

Ross and McGrath have been at each other’s throats over the Road Traffic Bill, which proposes to introduce a three-month ban for first-offender drivers caught with between 50mg and 80mg per 100ml of blood alcohol in their system.

It also proposes penalties for those who allow learner drivers to drive their cars unaccompanied.

Ross called McGrath an “out and out boll****” last week. Expect the same kind of engagement, if not the unparliamentary language, in the chamber today.