Poots: NI leaders should just ignore Tories’ abortion demand

An ex-health minister has said Robin Swann should simply ignore orders he has been given by the Tory government, telling him to set up a wide network of abortion centres.
Edwin PootsEdwin Poots
Edwin Poots

Edwin Poots, the erstwhile DUP leader who still holds the post of agriculture minister, made the comment after Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis this week issued a directive to the Province’s political leaders.

Thursday’s directive was aimed at health minister Mr Swann, the Health and Social Care Board, and the Executive at large, and instructed them “to make abortion services available in Northern Ireland no later than March 31, 2022”.

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New rules were imposed on NI from Westminster in 2020, making it much easier to obtain an abortion (in some cases up to term) in Northern Ireland.

But whilst some abortions have taken place since then, Mr Swann has never commissioned a fully-fledged, fully-funded network of Province-wide abortion services.

The reasons are complex, but basically amount to Mr Swann saying that he needs agreement from the NI Executive before this can happen.

And since the DUP holds the first minister’s role, and is the biggest party, this agreement has never been forthcoming.

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Then earlier this year the government passed a new law – The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 – which gave Brandon Lewis the authority to “direct that the action must be taken” by the Stormont government to bring a fully-fledged abortion system into being.

However, it is not clear what – if anything – Brandon Lewis can actually do if the devolved ministers just decide to ignore him.

The wording of the regulations themselves does not list any potential punishments for ignoring Mr Lewis’ orders.

And when the News Letter queried this with the Northern Ireland Office, it could not come up with any specific penalties at its disposal either.

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Mr Poots was asked if Robin Swann et al should therefore just ignore Mr Lewis.

“Yes I do,” said Mr Poots (who held the post of health minister from 2011 to 2014).

“And I think it should be tested legally.

“I don’t believe there is the support in Northern Ireland for this. Previously when it was tested it didn’t have the significant support to proceed.

“Therefore, I’ll certainly be looking at seeking legal advice on all of this. I’m sure minister Swann will [too].

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“The DUP has been and will continue to be wholly opposed to the abortion proposals brought forward by Brandon Lewis, and we’ll seek to resist them whatever way possible.”

When the News Letter asked the Executive Office what it planned to do about Mr Lewis’ orders, it referred the paper to the Department of Health, which simply re-iterated that the matter does not lie merely Mr Swann, but must be “referred to the Executive... for agreement”.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Office said: “The Secretary of State has directed that action must be taken. Those directed are under a legal obligation to take the action and we expect them to do so. The Northern Ireland Secretary has a legal duty to ensure the provision of abortion services...

“As such, he will continue to monitor the situation closely.”

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On a separate matter, namely Mr Poots’ ousting as DUP leader last month, the News Letter asked what his thoughts are now the dust has settled.

“I’m feeling fine, I’ve plenty of work to do, and am applying myself to do that.”

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