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Bishops given copy of Attorney General’s advice ahead of 1983 referendum

The Bishop of Clonfert was also given unfettered access to the Attorney General in the lead up to the abortion referendum.

Bishops Donal Murray, Kevin McNamara, Joseph Cassidy and Edward Daly at a press conference after a meeting in Maynooth in 1983.
Bishops Donal Murray, Kevin McNamara, Joseph Cassidy and Edward Daly at a press conference after a meeting in Maynooth in 1983.
Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

A LETTER PUBLISHED this week under the 30 Year Rule has revealed a close working relationship between the Taoiseach and the Bishop of Clonfert ahead of the 1983 abortion referendum.

Almost immediately after receiving the Attorney General’s advice about problems with the wording for the proposed amendment to the Constitution on the right to life of the unborn, Garret Fitzgerald visited Bishop Joseph Cassidy.

Following the meeting, the Fine Gael leader sent six copies of Peter Sutherland’s opinion document to the Bishop, along with his direct telephone number and a promise the he would be available for talks “any time should you feel that it might be of assistance”.

He also thanked him for receiving him “so warmly”, adding that he appreciated his “willingness” to discuss the problems that had arisen at such short notice.

The Attorney General had outlined his reasons for not approving the proposed insertion to Article 40, including difficulties with defining what is meant by ‘the unborn’ and the prospect of rendering operations – “now carried out in full accord with the law of the State and the teaching of all the Churches” – unconstitutional.

Explaining his decision to find alternative wording to that compiled by the previous Fianna Fáil government, Fitzgerald said his main concern was to “ensure that the Amendment does in fact do what it sets out to do”. That was to prohibit abortion and to prevent the Supreme Court from making any decisions that could permit a wider regime on the island, as had happened through the Row -v- Wade case in the US.

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The documents released by the National Archives this week also include notes from discussions an official from the Taoiseach’s department held with the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign.

During one “informal off the record” meeting, Brendan Shortall (who was the PRO for the group) made it clear that he did not share the Attorney General’s concerns.

However, he was open to the idea of an alternative wording and that the campaign intended to come up with their own proposal.

According to an internal memo in the department, he said it “might be possible to pass that wording informally without commitment – as an indication of the current line of examination being considered by the campaign”.

Although Fine Gael did come up with an alternative amendment, it was struck down in the Dáil and the initial proposal was put to the people – and passed – in September 1983.

For further study, see the National Archives Ref 2013/100/557-569

More: The Attorney General’s advice NOT to introduce ‘pro-life’ constitutional amendment

1982: Government was warned of pro-life amendment’s clash with ECHR

Explainer: What will Ireland’s new abortion law change?

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