The Dáil resumes on Tuesday after the Christmas break and one topic above all is set to dominate the coming session – the proposal to remove the constitutional prohibition on abortion.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he has an open mind on whether or not abortion should be permitted up to 12 weeks but it appears likely such a proposal will form the nub of the Government’s approach. The all-party Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, which reported before Christmas, backed the lifting of the constitutional ban to permit abortion up to 12 weeks.
That report will be debated by the Dáil and the Government will then proceed to formulate its position with the intention of holding a referendum before the summer.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have promised their TDs a free vote on the matter and this will also apply to Government Ministers, some of whom are expected to oppose the introduction of unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks.
The Fine Gael parliamentary party is having a special meeting on Monday to discuss the matter and the Taoiseach and his Ministers will be paying close attention to the views of TDs and Senators and what they have gleaned about the mood of their constituents over the Christmas break.
The Taoiseach’s intervention seems designed to signal his understanding for the position of TDs who are troubled by the proposal, but it is difficult to see the Government tabling anything else given the committee’s report and the complexities involved in any alternative scheme.
While fears have been expressed about another bitter and divisive referendum on abortion, the tone of the political debate so far has generally been respectful. With Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin TDs expected to be on both sides of the argument, the issue will not lend itself to being used for party-political advantage.
The prospect of a referendum before the summer has put speculation about a spring general election on hold. While the minority Government could be brought down at any time, an early election would delay the referendum and that is in no party’s interest.
The real test of the Government’s stability will come in the run-up to the budget in the autumn. This is the final budget envisioned in the confidence-and-supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and both parties can be expected to manoeuvre for position as it runs out.
There is a provision in the agreement for an extension of the arrangement and preliminary talks about that are expected to begin once the abortion referendum is out of the way. The big question is whether either of the two big parties really wants to continue the arrangement for another year or two. If not, an autumn election is entirely possible.