EDWIN Poots has come under fire over just how long he has known that an abortion clinic could be opening in Belfast.
Political rivals have launched a stinging attack on the health minister, accusing him of dragging his feet in preparing for the arrival of the controversial Marie Stopes facility in Belfast since he was first made aware of the possibility on January 30.
As previously reported, Ulster’s laws on abortion are radically different from the rest of the UK, and Stormont has been trying and failing to issue watertight guidelines for years to clarify the situation, and let doctors know what best medical practice is.
But with the news that almost nine months has passed since the Department of Health first became aware of Marie Stopes’ possible arrival, one MLA has accused the minister of “dereliction of duty” over the abortion clinic issue.
Jim Allister, TUV MLA for North Antrim, said: “If the health minister knew these people were coming, and was establishing that there were doubts about the regulatory process, I do have to ask why had he not put regulation in place?
“That does seem to be a dereliction of duty in terms of what I would have expected.
“I think the minister has some explaining to do in this regard.”
Conall McDevitt, SDLP MLA for south Belfast, said: “The minister has a duty to bring forward guidelines, and should do so.
“If he has known since January this was in the offing, if he was aware of Marie Stopes’ proposal to locate a clinic in Belfast since January, he should have been taking urgent steps to make sure guildeines were in place and a regulator framework was in place, and I think for him to have failed to do so is deeply regrettable.”
The clinic approached Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) in January.
This organisation is in charge of inspecting care homes and medical facilities in Ulster — however, it is believed that it does not actually have the remit to regulate the Marie Stopes clinic.
In a statement, the Department of Health said: “While the department was aware on 30 January 2012 that Marie Stopes International was in contact with RQIA about a proposed facility in Belfast, it was not notified until 9 October 2012 that the clinic would open week commencing 15 October 2012.”
In between, it said it was speaking to RQIA about what services the clinic would offer to see if it could be regulated.
The department also said that staff working there would be answerable to their their own professional bodies, and to criminal law itself.
A statement from the minister himself read: “This clinic must comply with the law.
“Abortion in Northern Ireland is regulated by the criminal law, and it will be for the police to investigate any concerns that arise and the courts to determine whether an offence has been carried out.”
In Ulster, this states that unless a woman’s life or health are at grave risk, abortion is illegal.
Meanwhile attourney general John Larkin, Stormont’s top legal advisor, faced mounting criticism himself at the weekend, as it emerged that four years ago he said in an interview that abortion was like “putting a bullet in the back of the head of the child two days after it’s born.”
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: ““As a medic myself, I know all too well how fragile and vulnerable women in crisis pregnancies can feel and they deserve support and gentleness, rather than frightening rhetoric.”
As reported last week, Mr Larkin had called for Stormont’s justice committee to launch a legal probe into the clinic.
The Free Presebyterian Church is planning a demonstration this coming Thursday at the Great Victoria Street clinic, following a rally involving hundreds of protestors last Thursday.
Running for about an hour at 1pm, it is to involve songs, an address and the presentation of a letter to the clinic, said Rev Robert Ormerod, convenor of the church’s government and morals committee, who added that all are free to attend.