REFERENDUM DEBATE NEEDS TO BE RESPECTFUL

Yesterday I questioned the Taoiseach about when in 2018 will the referendum on the 8th amendment to the constitution be held. As someone who campaigned in various abortion referenda over the past 34 years I am concerned that any debate on the abortion issue is respectful to people on all sides of the debate.

 

Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach   the referenda he is considering as a priority in the coming period. [29967/17]

The Taoiseach  I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 7, inclusive, together.

Under the Programme for a Partnership Government, the Government is committed to holding constitutional referenda on the following matters: Article 41.2.1, regarding a woman’s life within the home; Article 40.6.1, on the offence of blasphemy; giving the office of Ceann Comhairle constitutional standing; and Ireland’s participation in the Unified Patent Court.

Three of these proposals arise from the Convention on the Constitution that sat from January 2013 to February 2014. The Government has responded to all the convention’s reports. One of the convention’s recommendations, of particular importance, is in relation to amending the Constitution to give citizens resident outside the State the right to vote in presidential elections. In March of this year, Government approved, in principle, to the holding of this referendum and the Minister for Housing, Community and Local Government is now working on this matter.

In addition, the Programme for a Partnership Government committed the Government to establish a Citizens’ Assembly with a mandate to look at a limited number of key issues, including the eighth amendment to the Constitution. In July 2016, the Houses of the Oireachtas approved establishment of the assembly.

The assembly is chaired by former Supreme Court Judge, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. It operates independently of Government and will report directly to the Houses of the Oireachtas. The assembly has concluded its deliberations on the first topic, the eighth amendment, and published its report on the matter only last Thursday and laid it before the Houses. The Houses will now refer it for consideration to the recently established Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment under the chairmanship of Senator Catherine Noone, which will in turn bring its conclusions to the Houses for debate. As I have already indicated, it is my intention to hold a referendum on this matter in 2018.

The Programme for a Partnership Government also says that on foot of the recommendation of the banking inquiry, the Government will seek a review of the powers of Oireachtas committees in conducting inquiries and, based on this review, will consider whether there should be a constitutional referendum to strengthen the power of Oireachtas committees.

Aside from a referendum on the eighth amendment taking place next year, no decision has been made yet as regards timing for other planned referenda. Before any referendum would be scheduled, I will of course bring a proposal to Government and hold discussions with Opposition leaders

 

Deputy Joan Burton:   I welcome the Taoiseach’s commitment to hold a referendum in 2018. Given the timeline of the Oireachtas committee, which has a number of months in which to do its work, whatever further deliberations the Taoiseach may decide are required in terms of these Houses and the actual preparation of the referendum, it would be highly desirable if the Taoiseach could commit to holding the referendum shortly after March and perhaps before the middle of June 2018. It is appropriate for it to be held then because it should not become embroiled in the visit of the Pope to Ireland towards the end of the summer. We want a respectful debate. It is a very difficult personal issue for huge numbers of people. The people who campaign on the “ultra” sides of either side may have very clear and shrill views but many citizens will want the opportunity to come to their conclusions about what is the most appropriate option. I agree with what has been said, namely, that there has been a sea change in people’s attitudes in this area. I want to make it clear that the Labour Party wishes to see the repeal of the existing constitutional amendment, which was passed over 30 years ago. Younger people in particular want their opportunity to vote on that as soon as is practically possible. My view is that it should be early in the second quarter of next year.