Gerry Adams has said that he is personally in favour of women being able to have abortions – putting him at odds with long-standing Sinn Fein policy.
Despite having been president of Sinn Fein for 34 years during which the party has opposed successive attempts to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, Mr Adams said that in his view it was “absolutely” the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion.
The statement comes after several years in which Sinn Fein has gradually liberalised its position on abortion in certain circumstances, culminating in its current campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Republic’s constitution, which gives legal equality to both the mother and her unborn child.
The party has also supported attempts to allow for abortions in cases where there has been a sexual crime or where it is judged that the foetus cannot survive for very long, or at all, outside the womb due to severe medical problems.
Even those modest moves to liberalise the party’s stance have led to internal tensions, with a series of Sinn Fein politicians in Northern Ireland and the Republic either defying the party whip on the issue or quitting the party altogether over its changing stance.
Now Mr Adams has gone much further than the party, but said that this is “personal position”.
The veteran republican made the comments in response to questions from The Irish Times.
He told the newspaper: “My personal position is that it is up to women.
“Women have to have the right in all of these situations but as a party member I can only support the position which the party has worked out over a very, very long time, which as I say, I think reflects wider society.”
Speaking of the party which he has shaped, Mr Adams insisted that Sinn Fein’s position “has been very clear on this issue for a very, very long time” and added: “I think our party position reflects wider society.
“We are very much in support of the repeal of the amendment in the constitution, the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, we want to see that gone.
“It should never have been in the constitution in the first place and it should be replaced by legislation which reflects our party position.”
Meanwhile, women from Northern Ireland can now access abortions free of charge through NHS Scotland.
Regulations laid in the Scottish Parliament last month to allow the provision of the service to women from Northern Ireland come into force from Monday.
Scottish Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell said: “I recognise the barriers that women from Northern Ireland face when they have to travel to access abortion services which is why we are exploring what more we can do to address them.
“Once again this underlines Scotland’s commitment to ensuring we have a health service that puts patient care and dignity at its very heart.”