Northern Ireland abortion laws must not be changed in Westminster

Secretary of State Karen Bradley
Secretary of State Karen Bradley

Westminster politicians are not qualified to change abortion laws for Northern Ireland, the region's Secretary of State has said.

Karen Bradley insisted that people in Northern Ireland do not want MPs making decisions on whether to overhaul the existing regime, as she explained the Government's reluctance to intervene on the contentious social issue.

"It's another example of why the (Stormont) executive needs to be reformed, so those politicians representing the people Northern Ireland, understanding their views on this very, very sensitive issue can make sure the law is right for them," Mrs Bradley told the Press Association.

The Government is facing mounting pressure to reform abortion laws in Northern Ireland after Supreme Court judges said they were incompatible with human rights legislation.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Abortion is illegal except where a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health. Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in February 2016 against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest.

Pro-choice advocates demanded action after a majority of Supreme Court judges last week said the ban on terminations in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality needed "radical reconsideration".

The campaigners are attempting to harness momentum they believe has been generated by the Irish Republic's historic referendum vote to liberalise the abortion regime south of the border. Anti-abortion activists insist the matter should only be determined by Stormont politicians.

While a majority of Supreme Court judges expressed a view that the current regime is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), they did not go so far as to make a formal declaration of incompatibility - a move that would probably have forced a law change.

That was essentially a legal technicality - a majority of judges ruled the organisation that brought the case did not have the authority to do so - and it did little to dampen calls for the Government to intervene and legislate in Northern Ireland amid the absence of devolved ministers due to the powersharing impasse in Belfast.

But Downing Street has maintained its view that the issue should be dealt with by a restored devolved Assembly.

In an interview with PA in Belfast on Monday, Mrs Bradley said the Government was still considering the implications of the Supreme Court judgment.

But she added: "My conversations with people here is that they want their voice to be heard and they want their politicians, who they elected, to represent them and to develop laws around abortion that are right for Northern Ireland.

"If I have heard one view I've heard 100 different views about what that law should look like. But there is one thing that's absolutely certain - politicians at Westminster are not the people qualified to determine what the law looks like.

"It absolutely should be done in Stormont."