The Justice Minister has been accused of ignoring public opinion over plans to forge ahead with changes to abortion laws.
David Ford announced he will press forward with a proposal to make abortion legal in cases where babies are suffering from medical conditions which mean they will not be able to survive outside the womb.
However, he also revealed he is to ditch plans which would allow abortions for victims of rape and incest.
It followed a consultation in which interested organisations and members of the public were asked to have their say on the plans.
On Thursday it was revealed that tens of thousands of responses had been received by the Department of Justice between October and January, when the consultation ended.
It has also emerged that neither major unionist party offered view on the plans.
After revealing his decision, Mr Ford came in for criticism from both pro and anti-abortion supporters simultaneously.
Some – like Amnesty International – hit out at his decision not to pursue abortion for rape victims, describing it as “inhumane” to force a woman to have a baby in such circumstances.
He was also accused of disregarding the views of most of those who had voiced an opinion in the consultation, because the vast bulk of those who responded directly were opposed to altering the Province’s strict rules on abortion in either cases of sex crime, foetal abnormality, or both.
The findings included:
• There were 712 responses from individuals, writing purely in their own capacity (of which 579 opposed changing the law, and 133 were in favour of it);
• A total of 65 “representatives organisations and interested groups” responded (of which 18 were opposed to change, and 47 were in favour);
• There were seven different lobbying campaigns which used pro-forma letters with similar wording, resulting in 921 letters opposing a change in the law;
• There were also 23,622 signatories on a petition organised by Every Life Counts Ireland, both online and on paper. This group is based in the Republic of Ireland and it is thought that many signatories were from outside Northern Ireland.
When officials from the Department of Justice (DoJ) were brought before the justice committee on Thursday, they faced tough questions about these responses.
Committee chairman Alastair Ross (DUP, East Antrim), noted that the Justice Minister was claiming there is “substantial support” for changing the abortion law.
He asked how the minister could make such a claim when it appeared “99 per cent of people” who took part in the consultation were opposed to any change in the law.
The DoJ’s Amanda Patterson replied that 47 interested groups had been among those backing changes in the law.
“And most of those groups were representative of a broad swathe of interested opinion, such as the medical bodies,” she said.
These included the Royal Colleges of Nursing and of Midwives, adding that such responses constituted “a large weight of evidence” in support of change.
Edwin Poots (DUP, Lagan Valley), a former Health Minister, also ran through the figures and noted that – even excluding the petition from the Republic-based group – just under 90 per cent were against altering the law.
He said: “You’ve engaged in a public consultation exercise and then chosen just to ignore the outcome of that consultation. What was the point of a public consultation if you weren’t going to pay any attention whatsoever to what is being said here?”
Ms Patterson said that they had to take account of the fact that many of the 65 representative groups which had written in – which included trade unions – were “representing a large number of people and a large swathe of opinion across society”.
She added: “At the end of it, this was not a referendum; it was not about working out how many people said one thing, and how many people said the other. It was to look at arguments and positions, and decide on the substance and content and weight of those arguments.”
However, whether the minister’s planned law will ever come into being is uncertain.
The matter will have to be put before his fellow ministers at the Northern Ireland Executive – which is divided on the subject.
It is hoped that this will happen before the Assembly breaks up for summer.
After that is expected a draft law will be drawn up to be put before the Assembly.