Much has been made of the minority Fine Gael-Independent Alliance coalition’s decision to hold a referendum on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, which provides for the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn.

There was broad consensus around the Cabinet table this week that the question to be put to the people should be whether or not to repeal the Eighth Amendment and also to replace it with new wording to be put into the Constitution. That wording would expressly state that the Oireachtas should legislate on this subject.

This decision followed advice from the Attorney General that it was the safest option legally, although - in reality - no option is in legal terms risk free.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his ministers are undoubtedly mindful that in 1983, the then attorney general Peter Sutherland (below) warned that the proposed Eighth Amendment wording was "ambiguous and unsatisfactory".

Some would argue that Mr Sutherland’s advice was borne out in subsequent years.

Peter Sutherland

Last Monday evening, several Cabinet members including Tanaiste Simon Coveney expressed concern about the proposal to allow terminations, unrestricted, up to 12 weeks.

However, the Taoiseach stated that the legislation his Government would introduce in the Oireachtas -  if the referendum is passed - would be in line with the recommendations of the all-party Oireachtas Committee. The 12-week approach was favoured by the Committee.

The legislation - which will outline how legal abortions are regulated in Ireland if the referendum is passed - will be published in late March. It is being published before the Oireachtas votes on the bill to hold a referendum on the 'repeal and replace' question. That vote will most likely take place at the end of March or in early April.

Many politicians have concerns about the Government’s timeline. Some believe the 'abortion legislation' is being published very late in the process. Others say more time is needed to debate this detailed and important legislation.

The target time-frame is tight. The plan is to introduce the referendum bill in the Dáil by 8 March. But the Oireachtas goes into recess the following week due to the St Patrick’s Day break. TDs return on March 21 before breaking again on 29 March for a fortnight over Easter. 

So effectively, approximately three weeks of parliamentary time is being put aside for debate on the referendum bill. Irrespective of views on the substantive issue, many in Leinster House believe this is an ambitious timeline as debate is expected to be lengthy with many amendments tabled. 

Leo Varadkar

The Taoiseach (above) has indicated that late-night sittings may be required. This is inevitable. Why? An order by Minister Eoghan Murphy setting the polling day can only be made after the referendum bill passes through the Oireachtas and is signed by the President.

Polling day for the referendum must take place no earlier than 30 days - and no later than 90 days - after the date of the ministerial order. 

So, for the referendum to take place by the end of May, the referendum bill must be approved by the Oireachtas and signed into law by the President 30 days before the last weekend of May. Any delays could deprive student voters of an opportunity to vote. 

Health Minister Simon Harris has described the timetable as "ambitious but doable". He is hopeful that the party leaders who favour a May poll will facilitate the bill’s passage. If the Government’s plan runs to order, the following is the likely roadmap to an early summer referendum:

February: Bill to hold a referendum drafted
Drafting of the bill to hold a referendum, which will include the wording to be put to the people, is being finalised. 

Late February: Separate Supreme Court appeal on meaning of 'unborn'
The Supreme Court will hear an appeal that deals with the meaning of the word "unborn" in the Constitution.

The Court agreed to the hearing after an application from the State for an "extremely early" hearing date due to the upcoming referendum. Chief Justice Frank Clarke said the court would hear the appeal around 22/23 February. A judgement is due in early March.

6-8 March: Bill to hold a referendum before Cabinet and Dáil
The legislation, with the referendum wording, is expected to be approved by Cabinet. It could be introduced in the Dáil on the same day but this may depend on the outcome of the Supreme Court case. 

6 March: Cabinet briefing on separate bill to regulate abortion which will be introduced if the referendum is passed
The Minister for Health is expected to brief his Cabinet colleagues on progress on the bill which will be introduced in the Oireachtas, if the referendum is passed. It will be in line with the all-party Oireachtas Committee’s recommendation to allow terminations, unrestricted, up to 12 weeks.

Early March: Referendum Commission formally established
Within days of the Bill to hold the referendum being introduced in the Dáil, the Referendum Commission will be formally set up by Minister Eoghan Murphy. The Commission is an independent body that explains the referendum proposals, promotes public awareness of a referendum and encourages the electorate to vote. The Chair of the Commission - generally a serving or retired judge - will be confirmed.  

Late March: Legislation to regulate abortion published (introduced if referendum passes)
The Government has promised to publish this draft legislation before members of the Oireachtas vote on the bill to hold a referendum. The same approach has been used in some previous referendums. While the minority Government will propose to introduce this bill if the referendum passes, members of the Oireachtas can seek to amend it.

End of March/early April: Bill to hold referendum approved by Oireachtas 
The coalition hopes that the bill will be passed by the Oireachtas by the end of March or early April, at the latest. However, again it is worth restating that the current Government cannot give a firm commitment on this issue as it does not command a majority in the Dáil.

End of March/early April: Referendum date announced 
Polling day will be formally announced by Minister Murphy. Polling day must be no earlier than 30 days - and no later than 90 days - after the date of the ministerial order. Based on current thinking in Government circles, the people will have their say in late May.