By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Thousands of protestors marched in Dublin, and Irish expatriates joined in demonstrations around the world on Saturday, to put pressure on the Irish government to hold a referendum to repeal restrictive abortion laws.
Regulations in the once stridently Catholic Ireland are among the strictest in the world and next month Prime Minister Enda Kenny will call a citizens' assembly to advise the government on whether a vote should be held to boost access to abortion.
Demonstrators marched in the rain on government buildings from Dublin's main thoroughfare of O'Connell Street, bringing traffic to a standstill by the River Liffey as they chanted, beat drums and held placards saying "My Body, My Choice".
"It's a woman's right to choose and it is ridiculous to say that anybody else, the state or the church, has to right to tell that woman what happens to her body," said Sal Roche, a 42-year-old dance teacher at the march with her 2-year-old son, Tommy.
Abortion has been a divisive issue for decades in Ireland where, after large street protests from both sides of the debate, a complete ban was only lifted in 2013 when terminations were allowed if a mother's life was in danger.
However governments have been reluctant to tackle an issue they fear may alienate conservative voters despite a dramatic waning of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, shown last year when Ireland became the first country to adopt gay marriage by popular vote.
Ireland's Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, an independent member of Kenny's coalition government who joined the march in Dublin, told Reuters that the earliest possible date for a referendum would be towards the end of next year.
"It's my hope that what we're doing today will ensure we get a referendum and the government moves as quickly as possible," said Zappone, one of many wearing black sweatshirts with the word "Repeal" printed on the front, a reference to the eighth amendment of the constitution activists want repealed.
Opponents demand that the amendment, which enshrines the equal right to life of the mother and her unborn child, should remain in place to safeguard all life, and a truck carrying the slogan "Abortion is violence against babies and mothers" drove through Dublin.
Demonstrations were also organized by Ireland's large diaspora in over 20 cities around the world, from Wellington to Montreal, and pictures were posted on social media ahead of the march from protestors in Melbourne, London, Berlin and Kathmandu.
In Dublin, many had traveled from around Ireland, including Paula Dennan, 32, who made the eight-hour round trip from the southern county of Kerry.
"We're marching in solidarity with the 56 women who we know for a fact traveled in 2015 to England for abortions and gave Kerry addresses," said Dennan, who set up the "Kerry for Choice" group this year. She was referring to some of the 3,500 women who traveled across the Irish Sea for a termination last year.
"They left Kerry to receive what is essentially basic healthcare and we came to show them that people are with them. We just need the government to catch up."
(Editing by Andrew Bolton)