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Taoiseach says they've run into 'real difficulties' around legislating for exclusion zones at GP surgeries

Varadkar says government needs to ensure they are on solid ground if one is going to restrict the right to protest.

Image: Sam Boal

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said the government has run into “real difficulties” around legislating for exclusion zones at GP surgeries.

When quizzed about the date the law would come into effect, the Taoiseach said he did not have a date for the legislation.

“The Minister, Deputy [Simon] Harris, and the Attorney General are working on it but we are running into real difficulties around restricting peaceful protest and free speech.

“While we all abhor and disagree with the protests being carried out – at least, most of us do – we enter a difficult space in a democracy when we decide that certain opinions cannot be held and certain types of protests cannot happen.”

Last year, Health Minister Simon Harris secured government approval to draft legislative proposals to ensure that premises at which abortion services are provided and the area immediately adjacent are designated as safe access zones.

At the time he noted that these provisions would not limit freedom of speech or prevent demonstrations against termination of pregnancy locations other than outside health services.

It had been envisaged that the legislation for exclusion zones would be rolled at the same time as abortion services on 1 January.

Just two days after abortion services became legal in the State, a group of pro-life protesters picketed a GP practice in Galway. Other campaigners have protested outside other locations such as Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, Co Louth.

Earlier this year, Harris said the government hoped to have draft exclusion zone legislation prepared by this summer – however the legislative agenda, which sets out the agenda for laws the government plans to pass before the summer, states that the safe zone legislation will only go to pre-legislative scrutiny in this Dáil session.

A spokesperson for the minister said: 

Officials in the Department of Health are working with the Office of the Attorney General on this legislation with the intention of having legislative proposals drafted by this summer.

Three pro-choice campaigners, Grainne Griffin, a founding member of the Abortion Rights Campaign (ARC), Orla O’Connor, director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, and Ailbhe Smyth, convener of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, who were yesterday named on Time magazine’s list of ‘Most Influential’ people for 2019, said their next battle is getting the safe zone law passed. 

They said it needed to be enacted as a matter of urgency.

Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson Louise O’Reilly highlighted to the Taoiseach that last weekend, like many other weekends, women were “being intimidated when they try to go into their local general practice and that general practitioners are being intimidated by people protesting outside their practices”.

“This is not acceptable. We were promised legislation on exclusion zones, we were told it would be a priority, and here we are close to the Easter recess and we still have no idea when we will see this legislation.

“It should have been dealt with when we were debating the regulation of termination of pregnancies legislation and it was not, although some of us said at the time that we should have done it all together. The reason this was not done was that we were told we would have legislation on exclusion zones early in the new year. We are now in the middle of the year. How long will we have to wait before we see the legislation?” she asked.

O’Reilly said women have a right to access the service, for which the Taoiseach replied: “They absolutely do.”

However, he added that if “one is going to restrict free speech and the right to protest in a democracy, one needs to be on very solid ground”.

A spokesperson for the minister added in a statement to TheJournal.ie:

“It is the Minister’s intention to introduce legislation to ensure safe access to premises in which termination of pregnancy services may be provided.

“The intention of the legislation would be to allow patients, service providers, healthcare staff and members of the public to enter such premises without fear of intimidation or harassment. While it was originally intended to provide for such safe access in the Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Bill 2018, a number of legal issues were identified during the drafting process. In order to allow full consideration of these issues, Government approved the drafting of a separate piece of legislation on safe access to health services.”

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