28/03/2018 17:21 BST | Updated 28/03/2018 18:29 BST

Ireland Abortion Referendum Date Set for Friday 25 May 2018, Government Announces

Voters will be asked if they wish to appeal the 8th amendment, protecting the life of a mother and her unborn child.

PA Wire/PA Images
Ireland has set a date for a referendum on abortion.

A referendum will be held in Ireland on May 25 over the divisive issue of legalising abortion, it has been announced.

The date, announced on Wednesday, will be the first opportunity in 35 years for voters to have their say on abortion. 

Abortion has long been a divisive issue in the once stridently Catholic country, where a complete ban was lifted only in 2013 when terminations were allowed in cases where the mother’s life was in danger.

Voters will be asked if they wish to repeal the eighth amendment of the constitution that was added in 1983 to enshrine the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child, instead enabling parliament to set the law on this issue.

Irish minister Eoghan Murphy released a photo on social media on Wednesday of him signing the order for polling day on the referendum.

“After weeks and months of politicians debating the issue, now the people of Ireland get the chance to have their say,” Health Minister Simon Harris said.

“My message is if you can no longer accept thousands of women every year going abroad to access terminations, this is your time to right that wrong,” added Harris, who will campaign for a change in the law.

Ireland’s two main political parties are divided, with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar saying he will campaign for reform, while others in his Fine Gael party are taking a different view.

Varadkar has said that he will be advocating for changing the law, saying his “own views on abortion have evolved over time”.

“If the referendum is passed, a doctor-led, safe and legal system for the termination of pregnancy will be introduced,” he wrote on social media earlier this year.

The main opposition Fianna Fail is also split, despite its leader supporting a change in the law.

Canvassing of votes has already begun, Reuters reports.

More than 10,000 “pro-life” campaigners rallied in Dublin this month to oppose the referendum while “pro-choice” advocates hope to tap into the support that saw Ireland become the first country in the world to back gay marriage in a referendum in 2015.

If voters back the proposed changes in the abortion referendum, the battle will move to parliament, where the government plans to introduce legislation for terminations with no restrictions to be allowed up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

However, with politicians further split on what comes next and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail allowing members a free vote, Varadkar cannot guarantee voters that his minority government will be able to legislate for such access.