The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has urged MPs not to override devolution when it comes to issues such as abortion and marriage laws.
The church made the plea to Westminster politicians yesterday after it emerged that amendments aimed at liberalising Northern Ireland’s current legislation on both matters could be tabled in the House of Commons when MPs debate the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill on Monday.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Rev Trevor Gribben, clerk of the General Assembly and general secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, said the Westminster Parliament must not bypass the devolved settlement in Northern Ireland.
The Bill is designed to delay the date for calling another Assembly election until October to allow the Stormont talks to continue, and give civil servants greater clarity around decision-making in the continued absence of a devolved administration.
Amid concerns from some MPs that there was not sufficient time for the Bill to be scrutinised and debated properly, House of Commons speaker John Bercow said there were ways which MPs could still potentially table amendments.
Indeed, Labour MP Conor McGinn, who is originally from Co Armagh, revealed yesterday that his cross-party amendment “would see same-sex marriage legalised in Northern Ireland by the end of October if a new Stormont Executive isn’t formed by then.”
Rev Gribben said MPs should focus on the purpose of the legislation and insisted that decisions on other matters affecting Northern Ireland should not be tacked on, but left for consideration by locally elected MLAs.
“It is important that everyone committed to the peace process continues to encourage those engaged in the inter-party talks to restore devolution. The progress that has been made since the beginning of the talks needs to be consolidated. As a result, the August deadline for an Assembly election should be extended by legislation, as it is important that the talks be given every opportunity to succeed,” he said.
“This is the aim and should be the sole focus of the Bill coming before Parliament on Monday. It is, therefore, very unfortunate that some MPs could seek to use this parliamentary process to further their own agenda, for instance, seeking to change the abortion law or to introduce same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland by the backdoor, through the amending of this Bill. This would bypass the devolved settlement that was agreed over 20 years ago. Decisions of this nature affecting Northern Ireland should be made by locally elected MLAs.”
Rev Gribben continued: “There are many pressing issues to be dealt with, not least those affecting our schools, hospitals, social care and welfare systems. These affect the lives of many of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society, including the victims of our violent past. Political cherry-picking of issues by MPs, when talks to restore devolution are ongoing, would be unhelpful and run contrary to the spirit of devolution and the devolved settlement itself.”
Responding to the possibility of amendments being used at Westminster to change Northern Ireland’s laws on marriage and abortion, a DUP spokesman said devolution should be respected by MPs.
“The best route forward is to have a functioning government in Stormont. Sinn Fein remains the blockage to restoring devolved government. Devolution should be respected by MPs. The Assembly is the appropriate place to deal with these matters,” he said.
The secretary of state is aiming to push out the date for a compulsory Assembly election once again, with no tangible sign of progress in talks to restore power-sharing at Stormont.
The legislation, which was briefly presented to the Commons yesterday, extends the election deadline to October 21. In a similar arrangement to a previous Bill, this can then be extended to January 13, if agreed by both Houses of Parliament.