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'Once the debate starts. Once the referendum campaign kicks off, it's open season'

It’s almost time for the abortion debate to be in the hands of the Irish public.

8th 903_90532643 Committee members at today's launch. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

IT’S ALMOST REFERENDUM time on the Eighth Amendment, although at Leinster House today it almost felt like campaigning had already started.

Particularly when the Pro-Life Campaign held an event outside the gates consisting of a troupe of young people holding a paper chain representing what they said were lives saved by the Eighth Amendment.

Prior to that, the committee members who signed-off on the final report spoke during a packed launch and expressed a desire for an even-tempered and factual referendum campaign.

The overall feeling was that the committee had been presented with the best medical evidence and the hope was that this would be repeated ahead of the referendum vote.

Bernard Durkan TD spoke about how his votes were informed by observing that abortion was already happening in Ireland.

He said that if the referendum debate is as reasoned and fact-based as the Citizens’ Assembly and the Committee then it will prove to be a positive exercise.

“I think if we’re calm and calculated about it and don’t get too emotional about it, I think a result will come out that will be of benefit to the country,” he said.

His thoughts were echoed by others, like Sinn Féin’s Louise O’Reilly TD who said that the information that was presented to the committee and the assembly should provide the public with a resource during the campaign.

I think that with the level of information that we have now, and we have enough information between the Citizens’ Assembly, this report and the other information that’s there, we have enough to have a calm and reasoned and respectful debate.

This is not always possible of course, as even Chairperson Catherine Noone noted. She added that the media has an important role to play.

“I think it will be difficult to keep this debate factual. And there’s a lot of opinion in it naturally, so it will be a very difficult process,” she said.

Once the debate starts. Once the referendum campaign kicks off, it’s open season, nobody can control who gets on the airwaves.

8TH 946_90532571 Seventeen of the committee members launching the rpeort today. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Much of the talk was also about the previous referendum in 1983. That’s the one that enshrined the Eighth Amendment into the Constitution in the first place.

That campaign is often spoken about in dark tones with those who were around to witness it saying it was among the most divisive times for the country.

The question about whether this upcoming vote will be similarly divisive is in itself a divisive one, with Ruth Coppinger TD saying that it need not be.

Coppinger said it’s now a “completely different society to 1983″ and that such negative predictions are not helpful.

“I don’t think this will be that divisive and contentious as some journalists are making out. I think people keep saying this, I don’t think we should sink that low. I think that it will be quite respectful,” she said.

Speaking outside, the Pro-Life Campaign’s Cora Sherlock said it made sense that the issue is an evocative one.

“People use the word divisive about abortion, I think abortion is a life or death issue which always raises very high emotions.”

PRO LIFE 561_90532627 Bríd Smith TD passes by some pro-life protesters. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Among its recommendations, the committee reported that the Eighth Amendment be repealed and that termination be lawful without restriction up to 12 weeks.

Noone said herself she did not expect the recommendations of the committee to so closely match those of the Citizens’ Assembly. She was surely not alone in that.

Not least among members of the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parties who have a free vote on the issue and therefore have a decision to make.

For those who are wavering, the Pro-Life Campaign said it would be lobbying TDs for support. Sherlock stated that “the education of politicians” is important.

But what of those Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael members on the committee, will they be trying to convince their colleagues? Kate O’Connell TD said she herself would be.

“I think for me it’s that we bring our parliamentary party members with us and keep answering the questions that have been asked over the weekend. Like ‘why 12 weeks?’ ‘what’s the situation with fatal foetal abnormalities’ and explain the complexities around rape and the availability of the termination pills.”

For me it started a long time ago. I think people speak about coming on a journey, I think it’s the job of the Fine Gael members of the committee to bring our party colleagues with us on that journey.

But outside, Fine Gael TD and committee member Peter Fitzpatrick TD was among those launching a minority report which called for the Eighth Amendment to be retained.

He told reporters there is plenty of support for his position within Fine Gael.

“We’re talking about a human being’s life. I don’t think that should go to a referendum and I’m disappointed that the Taoiseach of this country said there should be a referendum before the committee sat down,” Fitzpatrick said.

20/12/2017. Committee on 8th Abortion Issues Amendments TDs Peter Fitzpatrick, Mattie McGrath and Senator Rónán Mullen launch their minority report outside Leinster House. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

For Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher TD, he said the most important thing for his party right now is to ensure that the Dáil passes referendum legislation for the issue to actually be put to the people.

He said when that happens members of his party will likely campaign on either side of the issue.

“Personally, and I speak as an individual and not a spokesperson for a party itself, I will be acting as an advocate of the repeal simplictor proposal. Other deputies will be able to speak for themselves and I think there will be many views, but none obstructive in terms of us getting to a situation where the Irish people have a say,” he said.

Sinn Fein’s position is also somewhat unclear as the party’s position is in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment but does not agree with the recommendation that terminations be available without restriction up to 12 weeks.

“The three of us on the committee obviously heard a wealth of evidence which informed our own personal views,” said Jonathan O’Brien TD.

“But we are aware that there are members of our party who have very different views to what’s contained in the report and I certainly will be very respectful of these views.”

Only time will tell if others will too.

Read: Taoiseach says ministers will be allowed ‘dissent’ on Eighth Amendment >

Read: Legal abortion in cases of rape would be a ‘GP-led service’ under draft proposals >

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Rónán Duffy

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