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Taoiseach outlines referendum plans over next two years

Fianna Fáil Amendments will delay controversial Judicial Appointments Bill, says Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: the Government i s “absolutely committed” to the Judicial Appointments Bill which will provide for a lay majority in the selection of judges

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has suggested three sets of referendums may be run over the next two years.

Speaking at a media briefing in Government Buildings on Friday, he said Cabinet would agree indicative dates and set out a schedule of referendums when it met again after the summer recess in September.

“The windows that we have in mind are around June/July next year, another set in November at the same time as the presidential election and then another set in May or June 2019 at the same time as the local and European elections.”

The key referendums are expected to focus on the Eighth Amendment governing the State’s abortion laws and constitutional provision relating to the role of women in the home.

A referendum on extending presidential voting rights to Irish citizens living outside the State, one to remove the offence of blasphemy and one on the European unified patent court have also been flagged.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar said Fianna Fáil amendments will delay the controversial Judicial Appointments Bill, which has been promoted by Independent Alliance Minister for Transport Shane Ross.

Mr Varadkar said the Government was “absolutely committed” to the legislation which will provide for a lay majority in the selection of judges.

“Any delay isn’t our delay. We would have this through already if we could, but we don’t control the majority in the Oireachtas, so obviously we have to debate amendments and have votes on amendments,” he said.

“If there were no amendments we would have it through in the second week in October. I think perhaps [Fianna Fáil justice spokesman] Jim O’Callaghan may put down a few amendments and obviously that would be the cause of any delay and not the lack of commitment on behalf of the Government.”

‘Low-key diplomacy’

Separately, Mr Varadkar revealed he and the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney would engage in “low-key diplomacy” in Northern Ireland next month ahead of the resumption of talks in September aimed at restoring the powersharing executive.

“I’ll travel North for about two days next week to meet with the party leaders who are available...and Minister Coveney is going to spend some time towards the end of August in the North trying to do the exactly same thing.”

He said the Government was very keen to see the Stormont executive back up and running because a unique voice for Northern Ireland was urgently required in Brexit negotiations.

He said he had taken part in useful phone calls about Brexit with Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones recently.

“But when it comes to Northern Ireland I have nobody to ring,” he said.

Mr Varadkar was also asked about US president Donald Trump’s announcement this week that transgender individuals will be prohibited from serving in the US military.

“On the transgender ban, it is not something I agree with. It is a domestic policy issue for the United States. They run their defence forces, we run ours. It is not something we would ever consider introducing in Ireland,” he said.

White House

Mr Varadkar said he intended visiting the White House in March 2018 and he was sure he and Mr Trump would touch on issues such as climate change and migration, “where we would hold very different views on the world and how the world should work”.

However, he added: “I think the whole point of our relationship, of any relationship between two countries, is that we can actually tell the truth to each other and I’ll be doing that.”

Asked about contacts with Fianna Fáil ahead of the nomination by Government of incoming chief justice Frank Clarke this week, Mr Varadkar said he informed party leader Micheál Martin about the selection process in advance.

“He was happy with that and in that conversation he said he didn’t want to be consulted about any names and so on, but we did absolutely tell his adviser probably 10 minutes after the Cabinet meeting.”

He also said Mr Martin had referred to Justice Clarke as a judge of experience and ability in the Dáil. At the height of the controversy over the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal, Mr Martin said: “Máire Whelan is no Frank Clarke, Máire Whelan is no Adrian Hardiman, Máire Whelan is no Donal O’Donnell.”