Opposition politicians, women’s groups and pro-choice campaigners have expressed alarm at the taoiseach’s intention to hold the abortion referendum in midsummer next year.
Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, said the vote should take place “in May at the latest” because younger voters tend to go abroad for the summer.
Ailbhe Smyth of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment described the taoiseach’s plan as “extremely worrying” and said holding the referendum in the summer months, when many students go abroad, “would effectively mean disenfranchising thousands of young people”.
Leo Varadkar told a media briefing on Friday that the government will announce a programme in September for a series of eight or nine referendums to be held over a 12-month period. “The windows that we have in mind are around June-July next year,” Varadkar said. “Another set is in November, at the same time as the presidential election, and then in May or June 2019, at the same time as the local and European elections.”
Yesterday, a spokesman for the taoiseach said the government’s position was that the abortion referendum would take place “ideally before the end of June” next year. This would “give sufficient time to tease out the issues”, he said, while “the desire is to address it expeditiously”.
“I can’t see why it can’t be held in the first quarter or first third of next year,” said Billy Kelleher, Fianna Fail’s health spokesman. “The special Oireachtas committee, of which I’m a member, will report in December. That report will be referred to the Dail and then the government will come up with its recommendations. There is no reason why the wording for the referendum would not be ready for the spring.”
Ruth Coppinger, a Solidarity TD and member of the abortion committee, said: “I can’t understand it because [the taoiseach] said in the Dail a few weeks ago it would happen before the summer. The optimum time is when a lot of young people can vote. The marriage equality referendum was on May 22, 2015.”
Ivana Bacik, a Labour Party senator and pro-choice advocate, said: “It should be held before the summer. The concern would be if it was delayed beyond that, other events, including the Pope’s visit [in August] or potentially another general election, could affect it.”
Smyth said abortion should be dealt with in a single-issue referendum because of the question’s complexity and divisive history. “From what the taoiseach has said, it seems it is being proposed to run a couple of referendums together,” she said. “Repealing the eighth amendment is far too important and complex an issue to be bundled with others.”
Abortion is to dominate the agenda when the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland meets Varadkar for talks in the autumn. Eamon Martin, the archbishop of Armagh, will lead the delegation at the first official meeting between church and state hosted by Varadkar.
A church source said Martin would raise the referendum on the eighth amendment and restate the church’s position on the issue. He is expected to tell Varadkar that, while the church welcomes the democratic vote, it believes the amendment, which recognises the right to life of the unborn child, is for the “common good”.
Martin will make it clear that the church will campaign against repeal of the amendment, through homilies at mass and in pastoral letters.
The meeting will be held in the Department of the Taoiseach before the Dail resumes after the summer recess, in late August or early September, as part of the church-state dialogue launched in 2007 by Bertie Ahern. Churches, faith communities and representatives of Atheist Ireland will be invited. As well as a group session, each representative will also have a session with the taoiseach.
At the bilateral between the Catholic church and the taoiseach, Martin will bring along a delegation of bishops, while Varadkar is likely to be accompanied by ministers for health and education.
This will be the fourth church-state dialogue. On the last occasion, in 2013, Cardinal Seán Brady spent three hours with Enda Kenny. Afterwards, he praised the “vibrant and organised structure” in which the churches could engage with the state “in a transparent and respectful manner”.