Referendums: abortion vote moves closer

A lot of work will be required to devise a proposal on Article 40.3.3 capable of achieving the widest possible consensus

The Government wants to hold eight referendums over the next two years, including one on abortion next year. Sarah Bardon reports.

 

The Government’s decision to hold as many as seven referendums over the next two years came as a surprise to the political system. A number of the proposed constitutional changes have been a long time in gestation but some of them have emerged with little warning.

The decision to hold a referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, dealing with abortion, was widely expected. It is easily the most significant of the upcoming referendums and the one that will provoke the most heated debate and discussion. The Government has given itself a tight timescale by scheduling that referendum on the future of Article 40.3.3 for May or June of next year. A lot of work will be required to devise a proposal capable of achieving the widest possible consensus.

The Citizens’ Assembly, established to examine a number of constitutional issues, has proposed that abortion be permitted in the State in a wide range of circumstances and the political system has a duty to respond as quickly as feasible.

The Assembly report has been forwarded to an all-party Oireachtas committee, which has begun the process of considering the matter and is due to compile a final report by December. The views of the committee will form the basis of the referendum legislation to be drafted by Minister for Health Simon Harris but already campaigners on both sides of the issue have begun lobbying TDs and staging public protests.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar raised some eyebrows this week with the suggestion that he will not campaign for the Government’s proposal if he doesn’t approve of the wording. The obvious explanation for his stance is that the Taoiseach does not want to pre-empt discussion within the Government or the Fine Gael parliamentary party given that there are significantly different views on the best way to proceed. The liberal abortion regime proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly may prove unacceptable not only to most Fine Gael TDs but to many Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin TDs as well. The Taoiseach is wise to reserve his position until it is clear precisely how it is proposed to change the Constitution. But once it has been agreed by the Government it would be unthinkable for him not to support it.

The other proposed referendums will not be nearly as contentious and some of them may not take place at all if there is a change of government over the next two years. Three of the referendums are scheduled to take place on the same day as a presidential election in November of next year and the other three will coincide with voting in the next European and local elections in June 2019.

The political landscape may have changed out of all recognition by the time those scheduled election dates come around.

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