Two weeks ago I stood alongside many thousands of others in the Stormont estate.
Like the unborn, we were silent. In unity, we opposed Parliament’s decision to liberalise Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation. The law on abortion is a devolved matter. It should be decided upon by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
This situation has arisen because amendments were attached to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill by Labour MPs.
The amendments had no relevance to the matters within that Bill. Indeed, even the House of Commons’ clerks advised that such amendments were outside the scope of the Bill, yet the Speaker ignored that advice and allowed their inclusion.
Our ten MPs opposed the legislation but the larger parties in the House of Commons consider abortion issues to be a matter of conscience and do not enforce a whip on their MPs. Our MPs were ridiculed both inside and outside Parliament for their pro-life stand.
The Act will not come into force if the Northern Ireland Executive is restored by October 21, but for some, this is now being portrayed as a false choice between ‘language or life’.
The phrase is an over-simplification and conveys a belief that if the DUP were to agree to every Sinn Fein demand, including an Irish Language Act, then devolution would be restored immediately and Northern Ireland’s abortion laws would remain unchanged.
It is a mistake to think there is a simple trade-off between the two.
The choice between ‘life or language’ is a false one, predicated on a belief that the restoration of devolution lies only in the hands of the Democratic Unionist Party. That is not the case, but for anyone who takes a pro-life position, it is vital to recognise that the restoration of Stormont would not represent a conclusion to the debate.
Those wishing to see an immediate return of devolution will find no stronger ally than the Democratic Unionist Party.
There are countless areas where the refusal by Sinn Fein to govern is punishing the public. We have put down no preconditions or ‘red lines’ ahead of the restoration of the Executive. We would nominate Ministers today.
I urge people to ask each Assembly Party, if they support a return to devolution without pre-condition.
I encourage all those, who like us, believe the Assembly should frame laws in these sensitive areas to seek meetings with other parties, and Sinn Fein in particular, and demand to know what efforts are being made by them to ensure a return of local accountable government.
In August 2017 I made a genuine offer that we would seek and legislate for a reasonable and balanced accommodation for the Irish Language in a parallel process that would see the immediate restoration of the Assembly. That offer was rejected by both Sinn Fein and the SDLP within 90 minutes of making the offer.
Sadly, devolution of itself is not an absolute safeguard against abortion liberalisation. Besides Jim Allister, the DUP is the only pro-life party in the Assembly. We have 28 seats out of 90. For the UUP’s 10 MLAs each individual makes their own choice, Sinn Fein with 27 MLAs, famously said ‘the north is next’ when abortion laws were changed across the border. The SDLP in the past would have been an ally for the DUP on pro-life matters but with 12 MLAs it is a matter for each MLA and their commitment to the unborn is reducing. The Alliance Party has 8 seats and again it is a matter for each individual.
With those numbers in mind, the Courts are due to rule in the coming days on a challenge to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. Alongside that, some have made clear their intention to seek fundamental change to the law in Northern Ireland in any circumstances. It is highly likely that proposals for such change would come before the Assembly quickly after devolution is restored.
During the debate in the House of Commons, our MPs argued strongly that this law was a breach of the devolution settlement. This liberalisation is far beyond anything any NI Assembly would ever have endorsed. Having the NI Assembly back up and running before the 21stOctober would give all MLAs the opportunity to shape any future laws.
For our part, the DUP’s position on abortion remains resolute and unchanged since the Party’s inception.
We are a pro-life party and will continue to support the rights of both the mother and the unborn child. The position of other parties and their MLAs is less clear.
Anyone who cares about the legislative framework governing abortion in Northern Ireland must also look beyond 21stOctober and ask all MLAs what they believe the law should say.
My colleagues and I have met with numerous pro-life organisations over recent weeks to discuss this issue. We want to work together to protect the life of the unborn.
We will continue to devote our energies to finding a resolution on both abortion and the restoration of a Northern Ireland Government, preferably before the 21stOctober.
We want to see the Assembly restored so that local elected representatives can frame the laws for the people of Northern Ireland.
Both getting devolution back and defending a pro-life policy have been and will continue to be, fundamental priorities for the Democratic Unionist Party, but it is unfortunately simplistic and mistaken to assume progress on one will resolve the other in the manner we all require.