Eighth Amendment too restrictive, says Varadkar

Contenders for Fine Gael leadership say they oppose abortion on demand at hustings

Fine Gael leadership candidates Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney debate with each other during the hustings, at the Red Cow Hotel in Dublin on Thursday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Fine Gael leadership candidates Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney debate with each other during the hustings, at the Red Cow Hotel in Dublin on Thursday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar has said the Eighth Amendment governing the State’s abortion laws should be replaced with something else because it is too restrictive.

The first questioner from the floor at the second Fine Gael hustings in the leadership contest in Carlow on Friday night asked the candidates for their views on the findings of the Citizens’ Assembly.

“I come at it both as a politician and as a doctor but also as a brother and an uncle. Like Simon [Coveney], I don’t agree with abortion on request but I also am very sure the Eighth Amendment is too restrictive,” Mr Varadkar said.

He said it only allowed termination in circumstances where there was a real and substantial threat that a woman might die, not that her health might be permanently damaged, or in cases of rape, incest or when a child did not have a chance of survival.

“I think there are circumstances in which we should allow it that does means replacing the Eighth Amendment with something else.”

It was the first time the contentious issue of abortion was raised at the hustings.

Mr Varadkar said Fine Gael could be a “big tent” party on the issue and it could be a “warm house” for people of all views.

Minister for Housing Simon Coveney said he did not agree with some of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.

He said he was opposed to “unrestricted access to abortion in Ireland and effectively to abolishing the Eighth Amendment”.

However, he said he recognised that the Constitution needed to change and he looked forward to the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment trying to find a consensus that a majority in the Oireachtas would vote for.

Supports for women should be modernised while “protection for unborn children” was maintained, he said.

The latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll shows Mr Coveney is leading Mr Varadkar among voters and Fine Gael members but the Minister for Social Protection has greater support among party TDs and Senators.

FG leadership tracker: track the contest and check who your local TD, Senator, MEP and councillor is supporting.

Earlier, Mr Varadkar hit back at suggestions he lacked compassion.

“Saying that you want to represent everyone but failing to back that up . . . it’s not a moral compass. It’s empty rhetoric and that in my view does not constitute leadership,” he said.

‘Falling over water meters’

He asked the audience if they remembered canvassing in the 2014 local elections, “falling over water meters to knock on doors to explain to parents why the Government was taking the medical card off their disabled children”.

He said he remembered. “That’ll never happen if I’m leader of Fine Gael,” he said to applause at the event at the Barrow Centre, Carlow institute of technology.

Mr Varadkar delivered some of his opening remarks in Irish.

Mr Coveney had asked those attending to consider the question: “Where is Fine Gael’s moral compass pointing today?”

Both candidates ruled out Sinn Féin as a future coalition partner. Mr Coveney said having the Green Party in government with Fine Gael would add to the appeal of his party and he hoped it was something that could happen in future.

Mr Coveney emphasised his background as a former minister for agriculture.

“I want be a leader for rural and urban Ireland, to be a leader for regional Ireland as well as Dublin . . . I am not in this race to make up the numbers. I am in it to win it.”

He said he wanted to take Ireland in a direction “most people in this room will be comfortable with”.

Mr Coveney said under his leadership the State would be a “better, stronger, fairer place”.

Mr Varadkar said third-level students should contribute to the cost of their education.

“I think the cost of it should be shared quite frankly,” he said.

“The fair thing to do is divide cost among those who benefit: employers, the students themselves and then society through taxation.”

However, he said he was not sure if so-called “new politics” would work on this issue, “because it does take making decisions that might be unpopular”.

Mr Coveney said a lot of young Irish people who wanted to get into university could not because spaces were being kept for foreign students who paid for their education, “in order to help fund the universities”.

Competing

The event was attended by Tánaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, MEP Seán Kelly and former Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney are competing to succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael.

Mr Varadkar is the front-runner in the contest, with Mr Coveney hoping to persuade some voters to switch their allegiance to him.

The electorate is made up of Fine Gael TDs, Senators and MEPs, as well as councillors and members of the party.

The first hustings was in Dublin on Thursday night. Ballinasloe, Co Galway is the location for Saturday’s event while the final debate will be in Cork on Sunday.