The National Women's Council of Ireland (NWCI) has called for the fast-tracking of legislation providing for exclusion zones around centres providing abortion services in Ireland.

It comes after an investigation by the Times Ireland found that a US anti-abortion group was training people in Ireland to intercept women before they access abortion services to talk them out of it.

Sidewalk Advocates for Life was the subject of an undercover investigation by the newspaper over a number of months.

An undercover reporter received training material from the group, including videos and documents.

The investigation revealed the group's plans to get around new laws for exclusion or safe access zones by approaching women in car parks.

Dr Cliona Loughnane from the NWCI said that what has been uncovered was a warning and that the council would like to see directives in place by the end of March.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One News, she said that these tactics had been used in other countries and Ireland's legislative system needed to be ready to address such practices.

Dr Loughnane said that there was a need to address the different type of tactics that were being used to intimidate not just women, but healthcare providers who are offering the service.

She said that as well as safe perimeter guidelines, safety zone legislation also needed to take account of certain types of behaviours, such as spraying graffiti and displaying graphic images.

Dr Loughnane said it also needed to have measures to prevent entry to premises and a law that stopped the monitoring of employees going about their business.

In a statement to the Times Ireland, Sidewalk Advocates for Life said it was a "law-abiding organisation that teaches others to lovingly and peacefully reach out to women at abortion centres, offering them non-violent solutions to their crisis situation".

In a later statement to RTÉ News, it said its materials "were taken out of context" by the newspaper.

It added: "We advise every location to act within the confines of their legal rights to offer help through local, reputable pregnancy centres or other medical facilities to fill their healthcare needs.

"We have no grand plan to put Sidewalk Advocates in front of every abortion facility in Ireland."

Minister for Health Simon Harris described the practices by the group as chilling, manipulative and disrespectful of the democratic process.

Mr Harris said introducing new legislation for safe access zones was a priority for him and he hoped it would be in place later this year.

He said he found it saddening that such laws have to be introduced, however, he said it was clear that there were people who would continue to "disrespect democracy, disrespect women and their choices".

"It's the old-fashioned view that you know better than a woman and her doctor and this is something we really need to call out", he added.

He pointed out that there were existing laws in relation to intimidation and harassment.

"We can change the laws all we want, but it does seem there are some people who will continue with manipulative tactics no matter what the law is and as a society we need to call this out," said Mr Harris.

New figures today show that 274 GPs and ten hospitals have so far signed up to provide abortion services in Ireland.

The minister said work was continuing to regulate counsellors and psychotherapists and 12 people have been appointed to the registration board for counsellors and psychotherapists.

Mr Harris said this board will set the minimum standards for people working in this area.