Coalition eyes countermotion to block abortion Bill

Independents and FG seek joint response to AAA-PBP Bill on Eighth Amendment poll

Minister for Health Simon Harris said yesterday he expected that Cabinet would  agree a unified position on this matter when Ministers meet in Government Buildings this morning. Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister for Health Simon Harris said yesterday he expected that Cabinet would agree a unified position on this matter when Ministers meet in Government Buildings this morning. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Fine Gael and Independent Ministers were working last night to agree a countermotion to block a Private Members’ Bill seeking an abortion referendum, which will be debated in the Dáil today.

The Bill, proposed by the Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit group, proposes a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which, as article 40.3.3, underpins Ireland’s strict ban on abortion.

Talks between the two sides were continuing last night, but sources were optimistic that a compromise motion could be agreed, avoiding another damaging split on abortion.

A Bill to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality caused a bitter and public split in the Cabinet in July, when Independent Alliance Ministers refused to agree on a united Government position and insisted on a free vote on the matter.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny told his Ministers in the aftermath that he could not tolerate a repeat of a situation where the Government was unable to reach a position. Constitutionally, the Government must act collectively, requiring Ministers to agree a position at Cabinet and stick by it in public.

Since the motion in July, the Dáil has voted to set up the Citizens’ Assembly, which has been tasked with reporting back with its recommendations on a possible referendum by next summer. The assembly, agreed as a part of the programme for government, was supported by the Independent Alliance, and Fine Gael has told them that supporting a Bill that subverts the assembly would make a nonsense of their earlier vote.

‘Reasoned amendment’

A “reasoned amendment” to the Bill would outline the reasons why the Government would not support it.

Sources said it may outline what will happen when the assembly reports to the Dáil, after which the matter is expected to be referred to an Oireachtas committee.

Supporters of the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment fear the process will take so long that any referendum would not be agreed by the current Dáil.

The assembly is not due to report until the middle of next year, which is likely to mean that a committee report on its findings would not be completed until the end of next year. That would mean the earliest a referendum could be held would be 2018. The Independent Alliance may seek to accelerate this timetable.

Independent and Fine Gael representatives have been exchanging versions of the amendment since last week, though sources on both sides would only say last night that they were “hopeful” of agreement.

However, Minister for Health Simon Harris said yesterday he expected that “Cabinet will agree a unified position on this matter” when Ministers meet in Government Buildings this morning.

Independent Minister Denis Naughten said the Government should allow the Citizens’ Assembly to proceed with its work.