Irish parliament could decide on abortion referendum by end-2017

October 25, 2016 8:54 AM EDT

Demonstrators take part in a protest to urge the Irish Government to repeal the 8th amendment to the constitution, which enforces strict limitations to a woman's right to an abortion, in Dublin, Ireland September 24, 2016. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's parliament could be in a position to decide on whether to hold a referendum to repeal restrictive abortion laws by the end of next year if a citizens' assembly recommends a vote should be held to widen access.

Regulations in the once stridently Catholic Ireland are among the strictest in the world and Prime Minister Enda Kenny this month called together 99 members of the public to advise government on the politically-divisive issue.

The assembly has been asked to deliver its report in the first half of 2017 and the government said on Tuesday that a parliamentary committee due to be set up to respond would be convened immediately and have six months to do so.

If a referendum is recommended, a vote would then be needed in parliament to set one up, potentially paving the way for a plebiscite in 2018.

Activists who marched in their thousands last month to seek the abolition of the eighth amendment of the constitution, which enshrines an equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child, have pressured the government not to delay a decision.

Abortion has long been a controversial topic in Ireland where a complete ban was only lifted in 2013 when terminations were allowed if a mother's life is in danger. Anti-abortion supporters demand no further changes to safeguard all life.

The timetable set out by the government on Tuesday was in response to opposition attempts to provide for a referendum immediately that threatened a split among the minority coalition government.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin)

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