Referendum due on repealing Eighth Amendment. What happens next?

Harris given authority to draft legislation to provide for referendum in early summer

Political editor of the Irish Times Pat Leahy looks at what happens next now the Government has agreed to hold a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.


The Government has agreed to hold a referendum on repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. After a four-hour meeting the Cabinet gave Minister for Health Simon Harris the authority to draft legislation to provide for a referendum to be held in early summer.

It has also formally accepted that the Oireachtas committee recommendations, which allow for terminations up to 12 weeks and when a mother’s life, health or mental health is at risk, should provide the basis for legislation.

So what happens next?

Harris is now tasked with drafting a Referendum Bill, which essentially provides the legislative basis for a referendum to be held. That Bill will be published at the beginning of March, and will give a clear outline of the wording of the question to be put to the people. The aim is to have that Bill passed through the Dáil and the Seanad by the end of March.

What will people be asked?

The exact wording of the Referendum Bill is not known, and will not be until the beginning of March when heads of the Bill are published. However, it has now been confirmed that the Government will ask people to repeal and replace the Eighth Amendment. It will be replaced by an enabling provision designating the Oireachtas as the authority to legislate for abortion.

When will the referendum be held then?

If the Bill passes through the Houses by the end of March, a referendum can be held on May 25th. If there are any delays a referendum could be held at the beginning of June.

When will the Government publish the legislation to outline what will replace the Eighth Amendment?

The date of publication remains unclear, but it is likely the Government will publish the general scheme of a Bill in March to give people a clear indication as to what would replace the Eighth Amendment in the event of repeal. It is now clear the legislation will be broadly in line with the Oireachtas committee recommendations.

What happens if members of Cabinet do not agree with the formal position adopted ?

Ministers will be allowed to dissent from the Cabinet decision, and will be allowed to campaign on either side of the referendum campaign. As of now eight Cabinet Ministers have confirmed their support for the Government’s proposition. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is the ninth member of Cabinet to do so.