Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil resist calls for abortion referendum
Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin committed to consultative process before any decision
Demonstrators outside Government Buildings urging the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are resisting pressure to hold an early referendum on changing the law on abortion, despite some Ministers signalling a new urgency about dealing with the issue.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin are committed to a consultative process before any decision is taken on how to proceed.
Despite this week’s demand from the UN Human Rights Committee that the constitutional ban on abortion be lifted, the mood in the two largest parties is to proceed with caution on the issue. Both intend to allow their TDs and Senators to have a free vote on abortion law if it comes before the Oireachtas.
However, Minister for Children, Independent TD Katherine Zappone, has sought to inject greater urgency by asking for a Cabinet discussion on the UN report. Ms Zappone is a long-time supporter of calls to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which acknowledges the right to life of the unborn with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.
The UN committee, in its findings on a complaint by a woman who could not have an abortion in Ireland when she discovered she was carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality, said she had suffered discrimination and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The committee said the Government should change the law on abortion to ensure compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including “effective, timely and accessible procedures for pregnancy termination in Ireland”. It ordered the Government to compensate the woman involved, Amanda Mellett.
The Government has six months (180 days) to respond to the committee. It intends to do so within the framework of its plans for a citizens assembly to debate abortion and a special Oireachtas committee which will hear expert medical and legal witnesses.
The proposal for a citizens assembly and Oireachtas committee was first set out by Mr Kenny late last year. Mr Harris denied the establishment of a citizens assembly was a stalling tactic by the Government and insisted a mature and informed discussion on the issue was needed.
He said the citizens assembly should be set up as soon as possible and the Eighth Amendment should be one of the first issues it addressed. The current situation about fatal foetal abnormalities was not satisfactory, he added.
Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said the State’s position on the amendment was untenable and there needed to be a referendum. She said the Government delay was not acceptable and the amendment should be repealed.
However, Mr Kenny said yesterday there was a need to gauge the consensus for change among Irish people in relation to the amendment. He said there was no deal on the issue with Mr Martin.
“This is something that is so traumatic and sensitive and personal for some people and families,” he said. “It has divided Irish society for a long time. I myself have struggled with this. It’s a profound issue.”