Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has clashed with Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin and rejected his calls for a free vote on the abortion issue for Fine Gael deputies.

Dr Martin has urged the Irish government to scrap the party whip system directing deputies to vote in favour of the proposed changes to abortion legislation.

But Kenny has dismissed the suggestion and warned Archbishop Martin that his coalition government has a ‘duty’ to change the legislation.

Speaking in London after he spoke at a global hunger summit, Kenny said: “The Fine Gael/Labour coalition has a duty to legislate to deal with the need to give doctors and women legal certainty.

“This is about saving lives, it is strictly within the Constitution, strictly within the requirement of what we have to do with the law.

“There is nothing now being proposed here, other than safer, clearer certainties with regard to saving lives. I have made it clear that the government parties will not be having a free vote.”

The Irish Times reports that Archbishop Martin has called for a free vote. He said: “Politicians should not be forced to vote against their conscience or face disciplinary action if they did so.”

But Prime Minister Kenny has refuted the argument put forward by the Dublin archbishop.

He said: “Governments are elected to govern and the mandate given to this government was very strong indeed. This matter has been around for a very long time and it has not been dealt with.

“It will be dealt now. It will be dealt with pragmatically, it will be dealt with sensibly, safely and is about giving clarity, legal certainty and an understanding particularly to the women in respect of their constitutional rights.

“This is about saving lives, not ending them against a person who exercises their right of conscience.”

The paper also reports that Archbishop Martin appeared to shy away from talk of excommunicating politicians who vote in favour on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

When asked by the paper about calls made by US-based Catholic cardinals and archbishops, Dr Martin said: “If you look at the numbers of people who have been formally excommunicated in the US, it is minimal.”