UN says Ireland must have vote on abortion

Committee in Geneva tells Government delegation a referendum is essential

A referendum on abortion must be held to ensure women and girls in Ireland can fully realise their economic, social and cultural rights, a UN Committee has told a Government delegation.

Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs Seán Sherlock has been leading the Irish delegation at the Geneva-based UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) over the past two days.

The committee has been examining Ireland on its compliance with the International Covenant on ESCR, which covers such issues as access to health, housing and education and guarantees citizens will not be discriminated against, in accessing these rights on any ground, including sex, race, religion, socio-economic status or colour.

Unique situation

Committee chairman Walid Sa’di from Jordan, in remarks to Mr Sherlock yesterday, said the division between Church and State in Ireland appeared “to be a little fuzzy”.


“In a developing country this would not be unusual but by European standards it is almost sacrosanct, this division between Church and state. Your country, Ireland, poses a unique situation. Is it a uni-cultural or multi-cultural society? It seems to me to be more a uni-cultural society. If so what happens to minorities in your country?”

The special rapporteur for Ireland, Justice Ariranga Pillay, from Mauritius, reiterated a question put by several members on Monday to the Irish delegation.

“According to your answers about why the abortion law cannot comply with the International Covenant standards, you said this is because of the Constitutional protection for the unborn foetus. If this is the case why have you not had a referendum? Why have you not answered this?”

Committee member Heisoo Shin, from South Korea, said the Irish Constitution appeared to “elevate the unborn to the status of a citizen” and said there was a “contradiction between” the Irish Constitutional right afforded to the unborn and the rights guaranteed by the Covenant “to a woman’s right to life and to health”.

Azzouz Kerdoun, from Algeria, one of several members who asked about "discrimination" in schools against non-Christian, Traveller and disabled children, said: "Irish schools seem to be dominated by the Catholic Church. What are your plans to deal with discrimination in education? Is the Government working to speed up its actions to set up secular schools?"

In response to questions about increased poverty rates over the past seven years, Jim Walsh, principal officer at the Department of Social Protection, mounted a robust defence of social welfare policies.

Massive crisis

He said Ireland had “gone through a massive crisis” and the Irish social protection system had proved itself the “best in Europe” at protecting people from poverty. He said the social protection budget had increased from €15 billion to €20 billion between 2007 and 2014 and the number of recipients had increased from 1 million to 1.5 million.

The committee will publish its observations before the end of June.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times