May referendum likely as Tanaiste signals potential Cabinet split on abortion
The country will decide as early as this May whether to legalise unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks, after a Cabinet meeting that went on late into the night.
Ministers expressed a variety of views on how best to approach the referendum but ultimately stuck closely to the recommendations of an all-party committee on the issue.
Voters are expected to go to the polls on May 25 or June 8, depending on how quickly the legal preparations associated with a referendum can move through the Dail. The Cabinet met for four hours and agreed:
l To hold the abortion referendum by the end of May, if possible.
l That the wording will ask voters to "Repeal and Enable".
l To establish a Referendum Commission.
Health Minister Simon Harris was also given permission to work on legislation that could see unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks introduced in Ireland.
However, a source said this would be the topic of further discussion at a later date.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is understood to have told his colleagues that he will campaign for repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which gives equal status to a mother and her unborn child.
In a statement announcing the Cabinet decision, he said we must no longer continue "exporting our problems and importing our solutions".
He will also support legislation that will allow terminations through a GP-led service up to 12 weeks. It emerged after the meeting that Tanaiste Simon Coveney is against unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks - but will support repealing the Eighth Amendment.
The Foreign Affairs Minister will go against the formal Government line on the issue, the Herald understands. It marks a most unusual split in Cabinet, although sources said he has held long discussions with Mr Varadkar about the issue.
The Cabinet was united during a four-hour meeting on the need for some changes to Ireland's abortion laws.
However, a number of ministers, including Mr Coveney, expressed serious reservations about backing the full recommendations of the Oireachtas committee.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Coveney said: "The status quo of how women are treated in crisis pregnancy cannot remain.
"I am united with my Cabinet colleagues in agreeing to repeal the Eighth Amendment and allowing enabling legislation.
"While there are differing viewpoints on the content of that legislation, particularly on 12-week access unrestricted, that is a matter for the Oireachtas to now debate. My views are clear on that and I expressed them at Cabinet."
Sources described the mood at the meeting as very respectful.
The question on the ballot paper will ask the public whether they want to delete the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution and replace it with an "enabling provision" that gives the Oireachtas powers to legislate in the area of abortion.
Mr Harris will now move to bring legislation allowing for a referendum before the Dail.