Abortion now in the hands of Irish electorate, says Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar affirms commitment to poll by end of May ‘with co-operation of the House’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Minister for Health Simon Harris and Minister for Children Katherine Zappone announcing  the referendum on abortion laws, on Monday. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Minister for Health Simon Harris and Minister for Children Katherine Zappone announcing the referendum on abortion laws, on Monday. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

Abortion is now in the hands of the Irish electorate and it is appropriate that the people be allowed to vote in a referendum on the issue, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told the Dáil.

He appealed to all TDs, even those who oppose repeal of the Eighth Amendment, to vote to allow the referendum to go ahead “and at least allow other citizens to make a decision for themselves”.

Mr Varadkar said that nobody under the age of 52 had had a vote on article 40.3.3, which guarantees an equal right to life to the mother and the unborn.

The Taoiseach affirmed his commitment that the referendum would be held before the end of May to maximise participation.

He said that with the co-operation of the House, “we can certainly have this done by the end of May” and preliminary moves were being made to establish a referendum commission so that it would be in place on time.

But he added a caveat, that the Government did not have a majority in the House and “we not no longer use the guillotine except by agreement of the [Dáil] business committee”.

Respectful

Mr Varadkar said the debate over the coming months “should be respectful on all sides and it should never be personalised”.

He agreed with Sinn Féin spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly that “even when people are not respectful towards us or personalise the debate, we should not respond”.

Ms O’Reilly had noted the call for a fact-based campaign and said, “We have all stated that we will rely on the facts.”

The Dublin Fingal TD praised Mr Varadkar for his comments on Monday night following the Cabinet debate on holding the referendum. She said he had shown leadership and “spoke for all of us who want to see the Eighth Amendment repealed. I want to thank you, Taoiseach, most sincerely for that.”

Ms O’Reilly said “today is a momentous day for Irish women and society. The insertion of Eighth Amendment was a grave wrong.” She said those who supported repeal of the amendment had to come together and run a unified campaign.

Ms O’Reilly suggested that on that basis she was “offering to pop over” to the Taoiseach’s Dublin West constituency to canvass with him and other constituency TDs Ruth Coppinger and Joan Burton and councillors.

“Perhaps you might join me in Dublin Fingal to do the same,” she said.

AG’s advice

The Taoiseach also said the publication of the précis of the Attorney General’s legal advice gave a detailed explanation for the enabling provision to allow the Oireachtas legislation.

“If we only repeal the Eighth Amendment we go back to where we were in 1982, when it was argued that there were unenumerated rights of the unborn and there may have been a pre-existing right to life of the unborn,” he said.

“There is also a possibility that courts could find in future that the foetus or unborn child is a child, in which case children’s rights would apply, or is a citizen or has a right to be a citizen in which case citizens’ rights would apply.”

Mr Varadkar said: “We do not want to be in a situation where the majority of the people vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment only to find out that it has no effect and that there is still a ban on abortion in our Constitution.”