Representatives of the Catholic Church urged the Government to reconsider plans to hold a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution at a meeting yesterday.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and a number of key Ministers held a two-hour with senior figures from the Church including Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop Eamon Martin, and Archbishop Michael Neary.
Senior Government figures said a number of issues were discussed including the potential for a Papal visit to Ireland in 2018, the continuing political stalemate in Northern Ireland and overseas aid.
The future of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which places the life of the unborn on an equal footing to the mother, was also discussed at the meeting.
It is understood the representatives of the Catholic Church outlined their “vehement opposition” to its removal from the Constitution.
They requested the Government change its position on the issue but stressed in the event of a referendum they would campaign in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Minister for Health Simon Harris responded on behalf of the Government and outlined the process that had been agreed by the Oireachtas.
A committee has been established to report within three months. It will look at the recommendations of the Citizens Assembly’ and make its own conclusions.
A vote will then be held in the Dáil and Seanad on its recommendations.
A series of Government Ministers have stressed their desire for a referendum to be held in early 2018.
Mr Harris is understood to have told the Church representatives there are varying and diverse views on this issue from all sections of society.
However, he said the Government could not ignore the women who travel abroad for terminations and the cases of women who are diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities.
The Minister stated the future of the Eighth Amendment would be decided on by the people through a democratic vote but he hoped the debate between both sides could be respectful.
Government figures insisted the discussion on the Eighth Amendment was not the primary focus of the meeting and there was not a lengthy debate on the matter.
“The Church made their position clear and we made ours clear. This was not an aggressive discussion, it was respectful.”
Speaking after the meeting Archbishop Eamon Martin said: “We had a constructive discussion with the Taoiseach and his ministers today, and we focused on issues which are fundamental to sustaining the common good of Irish life.
“I believe that regular Church-State dialogue is in the interest of everyone and reflects a truly pluralist society.”
In a statement, Mr Varadkar said he hoped this would be the first in a series of bilateral meetings, which will be held with dialogue partners.
The Taoiseach said the exchange was valuable and the discussion was beneficial for Government to engage with the Church in this format.
The meeting was also attended by Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Transport Shane Ross and Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty.
Background to meetings
In 2005, the then government decided to approve the initiation of “structured dialogue” with the churches, faith, and ethical communities in Ireland in line with article 52 of the EU’s constitutional treaty providing for such communication.
This State was among the first EU countries to initiate this form of structured dialogue.
It would mean ongoing contact at an official level; separate informal meetings - with an agreed agenda - between each church/faith/ethical community and relevant Government Ministers, to take place at irregular intervals; and an annual plenary meeting which would be attended by all churches/faith/ethical communities and which would be addressed by the Taoiseach of the day.
Set up under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, the first such structured meeting in Ireland took place in February 2007, involving relevant communities and the Government of the day.
However, no such full meeting took place after the financial crisis hit in September 2008 until January 2013.
A plenary meeting was hosted by then taoiseach Enda Kenny in May 2011. It was attended by then Catholic Primate Cardinal Brady, senior representatives of other churches, senior Muslims, Jews, Bahá’is and humanists.
Recently the current Catholic Primate Eamon Martin complained that since he assumed the position in September 2014 there had been no structured dialogue meeting between the State and faith/ethical communities including the Catholic Church.