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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Ballot Box

How much would a general election delay a referendum on the Eighth Amendment?

For one, a summer referendum would be out the window.

Fine Gael Think-in Brian Lawless / PA Images Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is standing by his under pressure Tánaiste. Brian Lawless / PA Images / PA Images

IT SEEMS TO be a matter of when, rather than if, we have a general election.

The confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil underpinning Fine Gael’s minority government appears dead in the water with an election the inevitable result.

While efforts to resolve the crisis are ongoing, this may only delay the inevitable until the new year.

That delay may make for a long campaign, but it would be good news for the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

So what happens if an election is called?

Plainly, if the Dáil is dissolved the committee also dissolves with it. It would mean the committee’s work ends about a month out from when it’s scheduled to finish.

If you’ve been following the committee’s work (and if you are you should sign up to our email round-up) you’ll know that the members have gone through many long hours to get to this point.

After nine weeks of hearings, it’s planned they’ll have two more meetings next week before starting to put a report together. This is what the government will use to scope out the wording of a referendum

The report is to be completed before Christmas and its chairperson Catherine Noone told today that it remains on schedule.

“We’re all on schedule to report on 20 December, to think that we won’t be given that opportunity because of this political dynamic, no matter what side of the argument you’re on, it just seems to me absurd,” she said.

To think that it us took is this long to address this issue in the houses of the Oireachtas. I mean obviously it’s not the only priority, at the moment, but it is a major priority.

noone Committee chairperson Catherine Noone

The committee has already decided against retaining the Eighth Amendment as it currently stands, but crucial votes on other issues still remain to be taken.

It’s planned that these nuts and bolts decisions will be tackled from 6 December but all this comes to a grinding halt if the Dáil is dissolved.

Firstly, the actual make-up of the 22 person committee is thrown into flux because they will all have to seek re-election.

That includes 16 TD and six senators, with the election to the Seanad taking even longer than the lower house. A Seanad election must take place 90 days after the dissolution of the Dáil, meaning that the process is set back at least three months.

It’s likely to be longer than that though because the membership of the committee would have to be finalised (again). This takes us to perhaps late spring 2018 and would of course mean that the planned summer referendum would be out the window.

What’s more, setting up the committee again may not be the immediate priority of any new incoming government, something that’s a concern for committee member Senator Lynn Ruane.

The likelihood is the (election) result will be much the same, but a new government is starting again, it doesn’t have to pick up where it left off with the referendum, it doesn’t have to take on anything from the Citizens’ Assembly, or the committee because we wouldn’t have had their deliberations. Of course we fear that we may have to start again.

Ruane adds, however, that there would be significant pressure on any new government to make sure the work of the committee, and of course the Citizens’ Assembly, is not let go to waste. She also says the repeal movement is strong and that the Eighth Amendment would be an election issue if there is one.

In fact, the Abortion Rights Campaign released a statement yesterday saying that both “human effort” and “considerable financial resources” have already been invested in the process.

“We will not let the referendum to Repeal the Eighth to be held hostage in a bid to get votes for political parties,” said spokesperson Linda Kavanagh.

Is there a best case scenario?

From the point of view of the work of the committee, no election at all would be preferable. But failing that, a stay of execution until Christmas to make sure the report is completed would be the next best option.

That would at least mean that any new government would have an agreed document to work off and that the referendum would not be delayed further.

According to Ruane, getting the report done and dusted would be “crucial”:

If the government were to fall next week, we’ve heard all this evidence but we still don’t know where everyone stands. We’d have nothing solid next year to go to a new government and say ‘okay, this was the outcome of a process’. Right now we’ll have nothing to say what the outcome of the process was. 

Ireland: Ireland: Thousands Strike 4 Repeal in Dublin Artur Widak / PA Images A protester during a Strike 4 Repeal campaign march earlier this year. Artur Widak / PA Images / PA Images

What about the worst case scenario?

If the Dáil is dissolved in the coming week, no report would be completed and it would be a major setback to those who want a referendum sooner rather than later.

Then, presuming the drive was there from a new government to complete the committee’s work, an Oireachtas resolution would likely be passed setting a new end date and obliging a new committee to consider the evidence of the previous committee.

This would at least mean that all those hours of evidence would not be wasted, but it would be far from ideal.

Reflecting on this, Noone says she is hopeful that this will not happen but that it is nonetheless disheartening that politics may continue to scupper progress.

“This is a very big issue and it’s one we’ve avoided for far too long and it’s a difficult one for politicians to deal with, and we’re actually dealing with it. And to think that matters outside of our control would affect it, it’s very frustrating.”

Read: ‘A woman is responsible for her own choice, ultimately she has to make the decision’ >

Read: ’70% of Irish women who have abortions in the UK are in relationships and nearly half are already mothers’ >

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