Simon Harris is going to press ahead with 'exclusion zone' law, despite being advised against it by the gardaí
The Garda Commissioner told the government that anti-abortion demonstrations outside hospitals and GP clinics have been "peaceful" so far.
Since abortion became legal in Ireland, anti-abortion activists have held a number of demonstrations outside maternity hospitals and GP clinics. It is understood that anti-abortion activists standing outside an Irish Family Planning clinic have handed women leaflets which promote an unfounded and potentially dangerous "abortion reversal" technique.
The government is behind on its promise to ban such demonstrations by legislating for exclusion zones - which would prohibit anti-abortion protests within a certain distance of healthcare facilities.
On Thursday, Simon Harris met with a number of politicians to discuss exclusion zones. Ronan Mullen, the independent senator, was the only anti-abortion politician in attendance. The minister showed TDs and senators a letter which he had been given by Drew Harris, the Garda Commissioner which advised against passing an exclusion zone law.
In the letter, seen by JOE, the Garda Commissioner said: "I confirm my satisfaction with existing public order legislation to adequately deal with any reasonable public order incident that may arise at such centres."
Commissioner Harris told the minister that so far, anti-abortion demonstrations outside hospitals and GP clinics have not broken the law and were "peaceful." It's understood that government plans for an exclusion zone law would block the presence of anti-abortion protests within a certain distance, regardless of whether or not they are engaging in public order offences
The Garda Commissioner's letter said that there was "no evidence to suggest that there is threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour directed towards people utilising such services. Consequently, the introduction of any further legislation to ensure 'safe access' to termination pregnancy services, would be redundant at this time."
A government source told JOE that it is still the health minister's intention to legislate for exclusion zones. Mr Harris had promised to bring in a law that would ban anti-abortion protests and demonstrations within a certain distance of any facility providing legal abortion services. Last December, Mr Harris said he would bring forward such a law as a priority, and described such anti-abortion demonstrations as "distressing and upsetting." .
A number of pro-choice politicians had agreed not to try to add exclusion zones to a law which legalised terminations in Ireland, because they understood that the government would legislate for safe access zones as a priority this year. Nine months on from abortion being available at GP clinics and maternity hospitals, there is still no legislation to stop anti-abortion demonstrators from standing outside the clinics. At the moment, an anti-abortion "vigil" is taking place outside the National Maternity Hospital on Holles St, Dublin.
Mr Harris had promised to have legislation on safe access zones ready before the Dáil went on its summer break. The Department of Health still has not published the heads of the bill, and the exclusion zone law was not listed as priority legislation for the Department of Health to progress between now and Christmas. Earlier this month, the Department of Health told JOE that Mr Harris wanted to reassure women and healthcare staff that "there is existing legislation in place to protect them and to protect patients."
It is understood that at yesterday's meeting, Mr Harris agreed to meet with abortion service providers to discuss the issue of exclusion zones within the next two weeks. Mr Mullen, the anti-abortion senator, asked the minister to also agree with anti-abortion activists. The minister said no. Two sources who were at the meeting said Mr Mullen raised concerns about an exclusion zone law infringing on the right to protest. The Department of Health has said there is no legal advice "against legislating in this area."