By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The abortion issue seems set to split the country yet again later this year as a group of militant anti-abortion protesters disrupted the taoiseach’s keynote speech to the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis at the weekend.
Meanwhile, it has been revealed that an unprecedented 105,000 submissions on the controversial topic have been made to an all-party Oireachtas committee. The committee, which hopes to find consensus on the issue, will make recommendations to the government later this year. Many observers believe a third referendum on the issue is the likely outcome of the process.
The handful of Youth Defense protesters breached security at the ard fheis and tried to storm the podium when Bertie Ahern was delivering his presidential address, which was televised live throughout Ireland.
Six people were questioned by gardai and released. None were charged.
Ahern said he became concerned when a pro-life demonstrator who was carrying something came up a side aisle, cleared a high barrier and approached the stage.
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Detectives in his own bodyguard unit quickly moved in.
"If it was another country it could have been very different," Ahern said. "My own detectives are armed and they didn’t take too kindly to it."
The protest came just hours after the Fianna Fail gathering had debated abortion and Health Minister Michael Martin promised to take action on the matter later in the year and to resolve once and for all the circumstances, if any, under which an Irish woman may seek and abortion.
Speaking after the protest, the taoiseach reiterated that the issue would indeed be addressed once again. However, what must be avoided, he said, is what he called another "botched attempt."
The taoiseach said he could not remember any other issue during his time in politics that had resulted in such a huge response, referring to the 105,000 submissions.
"They are not all one letter — many of them are very well put together submissions on both sides," Ahern said. "It’s a legal, moral, social and ethical issue and all those put together makes it a complex issue to deal with, but deal with it we have to do. I do not think it is possible to make everyone happy on this issue. Squaring the circle on this is probably totally impossible."
Health Minister Martin said abortion had caused a lot of division in national debates over the last 20 years and the government has sought to avoid its continuation by using a lengthy consultative process.
"From the outset the government was determined that this time round in the abortion debate we would create the context in which we could have an informed, rational debate and endeavor to achieve consensus," Martin said.
There have been two amendments to the 1937 constitution since 1983, following pressure by pro-life groups, who, of course, want to copperfasten an abortion ban.
At the moment, following a Supreme Court decision in 1992, abortion is legal where there is a threat to the life of the mother, including suicide.
While abortion is illegal except in limited circumstances, thousands of Irish women travel to Britain every year to have their pregnancies terminated.
Figures released earlier this month show that women with Irish addresses having abortions in Britain increased by 3.3 percent in the first nine months of last year. The Irish Family Planning Association expects the final figure for 1999 will exceed 6,000 for the first time.
The real figure is thought to be higher, with many Irish women giving the UK addresses of relatives or friends when they register at abortion clinics.
The 10,000 submissions received by a government review group on abortion, which reported in a green paper last September, had already caused surprise. The group could find no consensus on the matter.
The matter was then referred to the Committee on the Constitution, chaired by Dublin TD Brian Lenihan.
Martin said an analysis of the submissions was almost complete and he expected it would have its report finished by the middle of the summer.
"We are looking at the government coming forward with proposals in the autumn," Martin said. "I hope it would not become a party political issue. But I am a realist and, human nature being what it is, it could very well become that. We will nonetheless strive toward achieving a consensus approach as best we can."
Last year, an opinion poll showed half of the people want a new constitutional referendum.
Almost a third thought nothing should be done about the current situation and 16 percent said it should be decided by legislation.