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The Government is working to a timetable for a referendum on abortion in May, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said.
He reiterated it was a three-stage process; stage one of which was the Citizens’ Assembly, followed by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, and legislation “to create a context and environment for a referendum” as well as legislation to allow the referendum itself to take place.
Most of the work on the Bills is expected to be completed by mid-March, and he appealed to TDs to show leadership, with a respectful debate on an issue that “will divide households”.
The Tánaiste said, however, that while the committee had voted it had not yet published its report, due next week. People should wait to read the report in full before making judgments.
He said the committee’s report had to be debated, and this would take place in January. “The report will then go to the Government for consideration as to how we proceed on foot of that debate.”
Mr Coveney told Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald that “the Taoiseach has given a commitment, as has the Government generally – to the effect that we want to hold a referendum on this issue as early as May 2018”, but that would be a “very tight” timetable given the legislative requirements.
Ms McDonald described the committee’s vote to recommend that the amendment be repealed as a “very positive move for everybody, particularly the women of Ireland”.
She called for an early referendum, and asked for the timetable for the publication of legislation on the repeal referendum and for “any heads of legislation on the substantive issue of abortion or termination guidelines and law”.
Mr Coveney said Minister for Health Simon Harris had made it clear “he needs to work with the Attorney General to put the heads of a Bill together”, but would like to have that work done by the middle of March.
He appealed to TDs to show leadership to the rest of the country on how the debate should be conducted, and said “we should respect different perspectives and opinions which are honestly held”.
In that way “we create the right atmosphere in which the country can make a decision, as opposed to some of the experiences we have had in the past in the context of this issue”.
Solidarity TD Paul Murphy said the committee vote represented a “victory for all of those who have fought for decades for the right of women to choose”.
He called for the Government to expedite the legislation as quickly as possible, and said “the legislation for repeal is extremely simple”.
Mr Murphy said instead of going through a long process, “we could debate the relevant legislation in January”.
However, the Tánaiste said “I don’t mean this as a slap down, but frankly it would be helpful if people weren’t declaring victories on anything”.
This issue “is going to divide households across the country, and people should talk in a respectful tone about both sides of the argument in an effort to advance a consensus across the country that can result in a successful referendum”.
The Government wanted to expedite legislation to facilitate the referendum in May. “That will be very tight, however, given the demands to put legislation in place and to get the balance right in that legislation, as well as the need to bring forward legislation to facilitate the establishment of a referendum commission and all the other things that must happen before a referendum can take place.”