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Top pols squabble over timing of abortion vote

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — Despite gaining the crucial backing of the Catholic Bishops for the complex mix of legislation and a constitutional change on abortion, differences are emerging between the two government parties about the wisdom of a referendum prior to a general election.

Buoyed by the Bishops’ backing, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern hopes that a broad middle ground of voters will back the proposal, but Tanaiste Mary Harney has indicated she is less certain.

The proposed changes will roll back on a landmark Supreme Court decision that allowed the threat of suicide by the mother of an unborn child as grounds for an abortion.

The taoiseach has admitted that he and the tanaiste have yet to agree on whether a referendum will go ahead and plan to make a decision in January.

A minimum of 30 days’ notice of a vote has to be served by the government.

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The taoiseach told the Dail there would be no abortion vote on the same day as the general election.

“I intend to honor a commitment I made to this house following a request by the Fine Gael Party and others that the referendum should be held as a stand-alone event, apart from any other poll,” he said.

He also ruled out holding a rerun of the Nice referendum prior to mid-2002, but he has admitted it will have to be revisited if EU enlargement is not to be blocked by Ireland.

After the shock defeat on the Nice vote earlier this year, a bitter debate on abortion followed by another referendum setback would call into question the judgment of the government.

If serious splits emerged in an abortion campaign, it could badly damage the electoral prospects of Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats.

There is no political consensus on the proposals. The Labor Party is opposed and Fine Gael may also campaign against the changes.

Regardless of the politicians, liberals will vote No in protest at the rollback on suicide and hardliners will vote No because the measure does not go far enough and underpin protection of the unborn from the moment of conception, as distinct from implantation in the womb.

The government has held seven referenda so far.

Apart from Nice, the people have supported Cabinet confidentiality, the Amsterdam Treaty, the British-Irish Agreement, recognition of the role of local government, abolition of the death penalty, and the International Criminal Court.

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