On 1 May 2024, the Seanad voted in favour of the Government’s proposed ‘Safe Access Zones’ Bill.

This proposal of criminalising pro-life activity or expression of views within designated zones of 100 metres was fundamentally unnecessary and its passage is a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. The extreme pro-abortion groupuscule Limerick Feminist Network established a front-group ‘Together for Safety’, which drafted its own Bill which was then submitted on its behalf in 2021 by Senator Paul Gavan of Sinn Féin (currently an MEP candidate in the South constituency). This was clearly an act of political lobbying of the highest order, but no record of it was submitted to the Lobbying Register in contravention of existing laws on political lobbying. Moreover, many senators have namechecked ‘Together for Safety’ for their intensive lobbying on this issue.

Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, was eager to demonstrate to the pro-abortion lobby that he was on their side on this issue despite the fact that the Garda Commissioner, Drew Harris, had written in 2020 that the powers envisioned in a ‘safe access zones’ law was redundant due to existing public order laws. Speaking in February 2022, Donnelly said: “A view has been expressed to me through the avenue of legal opinion, and it is also held by An Garda Síochána, that additional powers are not required. The current powers are sufficient. It is not a view I agree with and not one that I have accepted. It is not the view of this House or, I believe, of the Lower House. We are legislating. This is happening.” This irresponsible comment, and others by the Minister, clearly undermined the authority of the Garda Síochana. The idea that a law seeking to criminalise certain behaviour should be within the remit of the Department of Health, rather than the Department of Justice, was peculiar from the beginning.

When Minister Donnelly introduced his Bill in 2023, it was clearly authoritarian in its contents. The Bill criminalises any activity which may have the effect of persuading someone not to have an abortion within designated ‘zones’, which cover all hospitals, GP clinics, and so-called ‘family planning centres’ – irrespective of whether they perform abortions or not. Due to the huge number of GP clinics across the country, this law has the impact of creating criminalised ‘zones’ which blot out many public places and criminalise the expression of pro-life views within its ambit. We have already seen cases in England where people have been criminalised for the simple act of silently praying within the vicinity of abortion clinics. These issues were flagged to the Minister for Health particularly by Senators Rónán Mullen and Sharon Keogan but unfortunately cool heads did not prevail and the very real legal concerns raised by the two senators were ignored in favour of proceeding with this draconian measure.

Speaking in the Seanad on Wednesday before the Bill was voted on, Senator Mullen criticised the government for its failure to address the real issues related to the impact of the Irish abortion law. He drew attention to the “tragic increase in the number of abortions year on year”. He noted that “however difficult or challenging life is, it is still a wonderful thing and it is still something we should always make the most of and be thankful for. The reason people protest against abortion is that that chance and opportunity is taken away from an innocent person.” Indeed, the new law will put the seal forever on the potential for women in unplanned pregnancies to receive the option of a helping hand when they may need it most. The government failed to listen to or take seriously the testimony of women like Alina Dulgheriu, of the London-based group Be Here For Me, who availed of optional pro-life support outside an abortion clinic in Ealing and decided to proceed with her pregnancy.

The constitutionality of this new legislation should be challenged. If President Higgins were fair-minded and cared about the fundamental rights guaranteed to all citizens in our Constitution, irrespective of his views on the substantive issue of which is well-known, he would refer this Bill to the Supreme Court as is his right and duty. This Bill, which is simply a smear against pro-life citizens, should be challenged and opposed. Moreover, its passage should encourage people to come to the March for Life on 6th May 2024 in order to show the Government, media and political class that pro-life citizens are still a force to be reckoned with and we refuse to be caricatured, ignored, or smeared.