Fine Gael Ministers move to smooth over divisions on abortion

Tánaiste criticised by colleagues for not supporting 12-week proposal

Tánaiste Simon Coveney  insisted he will campaign for a Yes vote to repeal and replace the Eighth Amendment.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

Tánaiste Simon Coveney insisted he will campaign for a Yes vote to repeal and replace the Eighth Amendment. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times

 

Senior Fine Gael Ministers yesterday moved to smooth over perceptions of internal divisions in Cabinet over proposals to allow abortion on request up to 12 weeks.

Last Thursday Tánaiste Simon Coveney said he would back the repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution but would not support access on request to terminations up to the end of the first trimester.

In the face of criticism from party colleagues, Opposition parties and campaign groups over his intervention, Mr Coveney and Minister for Health Simon Harris yesterday separately responded by arguing that senior Fine Gael Ministers were united over the need to remove the Eighth Amendment, which guarantees the equal right to life of the mother and unborn child.

Mr Coveney insisted he will campaign for a Yes vote to repeal and replace the Eighth Amendment because the referendum is a once in a generation chance and a “no result will mean nothing can change”.

He was responding to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who challenged him yesterday to find an alternative to the Oireachtas committee’s recommendation on draft legislation. The Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment recommended repeal of the amendment and replacing it with legislation allowing for terminations on request up to 12 weeks.

Mr Martin said on RTÉ’s This Week radio programme: “It’s one thing to support the removal of the Eighth Amendment but I think there is an obligation that rather than just articulating a view or some vague idea as to what might replace it that it would be far more precise and clear in advance”.

Speaking yesterday, Mr Harris also contended the Cabinet was united on the referendum. “Simon Coveney is in line with other members of the Cabinet calling for a Yes vote to deal with the Eighth Amendment. He has made it clear that there cannot be any change to the situation regarding abortion in Ireland, no matter how difficult the circumstances, as long as the Eighth Amendment exists.”

Mr Harris said that if there is a Yes vote, then the Oireachtas will go through a process of legislation that will be based on the report of the all-party Oireachtas committee.

Asked if the Tánaiste’s comments had muddied the water, he replied: “The Tánaiste has every right to pick through the issue and make his views known.”

‘United with the Cabinet’

He said that no change could occur without repeal. Mr Harris added: “We cannot pretend abortion is not a reality for many thousands of Irish women every year. It is what we do to enable that to be safe, to make that legal and to allow women have conversations with their doctors about this deeply personal issue.”

A spokesman for the Tánaiste said he was “united with the Cabinet in deciding on a repeal and replace referendum. He believes we have a once in a generation chance and will campaign for a Yes vote as a No result will mean nothing can change.

“The Tánaiste respects that the Minister for Health must now prepare heads of legislation in line with the committee’s report and he will get his chance to input into the legislation process when it comes before the Oireachtas,” he said.

In addition to Mr Martin, Fianna Fáil’s health spokesman Billy Kelleher also referred to Mr Coveney’s intervention saying that “freedom of conscience also entailed a responsibility to come up with alternatives”.

He said the experience of the committee, of which he was a member, was that across the world it was almost impossible to legislate specifically for rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

Two other senior Fine Gael Ministers, Heather Humphreys and Michael Ring, have not made their views on this issue public as yet. Last night Mr Ring told The Irish Times that he was still deliberating and reading up on a difficult issue and would make his views known “in due course”.