Former Attorney General John Larkin QC to fight Westminster’s abortion ‘power grab’ over NI in court

Former Attorney General for NI John Larkin QC is to head up a formal legal challenge to Westminster’s decision to seize control of abortion services in NI.

Monday, 3rd May 2021, 10:37 am
Updated Monday, 3rd May 2021, 11:10 am
Former Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin QC addresses "The Church in the Public Square?" conference at the Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast in 2014. Photo Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker Press

Pro-life charity the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) says it hopes to raise over £100,000 for a legal challenge against Westminister’s new powers in NI and that Mr Larkin has agreed to represent them in court.

In 2019, while Stormont was suspended, MPs in Westminster voted to relax NI’s strict abortion legislation, a move narrowly rejected by the Assembly soon after in a non-binding vote.

However, due to a deadlock at the NI Executive, full abortion services have not been rolled out across the Province.

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Secretary of State Brandon Lewis recently told the Commons that several NI women had taken their lives because they had been unable to secure abortions, despite the law having been relaxed here.

So last month he laid regulations in Westminster which give him powers to direct any minister, department or public health body to develop full abortion services here.

While strongly welcomed by pro-choice groups and politicians, unionists, some Tory MPs and several large denominations here argued that the regulations strongly undermined devolution.

However, today national pro-life group SPUC announced it intended to raise over £100,000 to fund a legal challenge against what it termed a “government power grab”.

The charity also said it has assembled “a powerful legal team” to fight the battle which it said is “crucial” for the continuation of the pro-life movement in the Province.

Belfast solicitors Hewitt & Gilpin — who defended the McArthur family when the Ashers Baking Company was prosecuted for refusing an order for a cake promoting “same-sex marriage” — have been instructed.

The pro-life pressure groups will be represented in court by former Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin, QC, whom SPUC described as a leading authority on the legal and constitutional issues relating to the devolution settlement.

When Attorney General Mr Larkin was frequently involved in legal cases over the relaxation of abortion legislation in NI.

In 2012 the Attorney General’s Office defended him from questions about whether his personal views on abortion undermined his impartiality in working with MLAs in a review of private abortion provision in Belfast.

At that time comments had resurfaced that he made about abortion to the BBC Sunday Sequence show in 2008. He had said: “If one is prepared to contemplate the destruction of a highly disabled, unborn child in the womb, one should also be prepared to contemplate, I think, putting a bullet in the back of the head of the child two days after it’s born.”

It was argued at the time that Mr Larkin’s comments had been made in a private capacity and before he became Attorney General.

SPUC says it is joining forces with new pro-life group, the Centre for Bioethical Reform Northern Ireland (CBR NI), to mount a challenge to the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021.

Liam Gibson, SPUC’s Northern Ireland Political Officer said: “People should be under no illusions - this proposal represents nothing less than an existential challenge to the very existence of the pro-life movement in Northern Ireland.

“Men and women from all political backgrounds, faiths and traditions who view the right to life as the fundamental human right need to stand up and demand that the London government listens.

“By supporting our legal action people will be speaking out against these illegitimate and unconstitutional Regulations. They will also be giving a voice to the thousands of innocent children who lives will be lost if this power grab is allowed to succeed.

“These Regulations give the Secretary of State the power to promote abortion in any way he sees fit. He can make sex education compulsory in all schools across Northern Ireland and demand that they arrange abortions for underage girls without the knowledge of their parents. He can run advertising campaigns aimed at changing public opinion and ‘reduce the stigma’ of abortion. He can even have street signs erected to point people to abortion centres.”

Referring to the decision by the House of Commons to back the Regulations by 431 votes to 89, Mr Gibson, said abortion is a devolved matter and added: “This is a disgraceful power grab by the Westminster Government. If allowed to stand it will not only condemn to death an untold number of unborn babies but fatally undermine the devolution settlement as well.

“When the Northern Ireland Executive was not functioning, the UK Government foisted radical abortion laws on us which would never have secured a majority in the Stormont Assembly.

“By seizing the power over our abortion laws, London is stripping locally elected Ministers of power and have denied the people an accountable government with a democratic mandate.”

He added: “These Regulations give an unprecedented level of power to a politician who is not answerable to the people of Northern Ireland. It is a basic principle of democracy that politicians are accountable to the electorate. In 2019, seventy-nine per cent of submissions to the public consultation on abortion rejected the government’s proposals but London has shown nothing but disdain for their views and contempt for the lives of our unborn children.”

He said SPUC has now held talks with CBR NI following the recent decision by their member Pastor Clive Johnston of The Bridge Fellowship, Strabane, to issue a Pre-Action Protocol to the UK Government, claiming that the current regulations are legally outside the powers of the Secretary of State.

SPUC has now agreed to bankroll the case and to join the application for a Judicial Review which is expected to follow shortly. The costs are expected to substantially exceed £100,000.

Pastor Clive Johnston of CBR NI said: “We are more than delighted to warmly welcome the decision by SPUC to collaborate with us and provide their powerful financial support and renowned campaigning abilities at a critical time for the abolitionist movement in this country.

“The UK government’s actions since the summer of 2019 have effectively destroyed the concept of devolution and have set a dangerous precedent for the future. It creates a blueprint for Westminster to strip Stormont of all powers in areas where Northern Ireland differs from England. This is a watershed moment and we are calling on everyone who cares about the kind of society their children will grow up in to help us win this crucial battle.

“By joining forces, sharing resources and being represented by a stellar legal team we hope to reverse these regulations and take back control of our laws.”

Donations can be made via: www.spuc.org.uk/Donate

The Northern Ireland Office and pro-choice group Alliance for Choice, which has an online petition calling for commissioning of abortion services in NI, have both been invited to comment.

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