NIO threatens to bypass Stormont to provide full abortion services across NI - Arlene Foster calls for urgent meeting with Brandon Lewis

DUP leader Arlene Foster has called for an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State after the UK Government threatened bypassing Stormont to roll out widespread abortion services across NI.

By Philip Bradfield
Thursday, 18th March 2021, 6:30 am

The comments come as pro-choice campaigners complain that there has been no visible increase in abortion service provision in Northern Ireland since restrictions were eased.

In 2019 MPs controversially went over the head of the Assmebly to ease restrictions on abortion in Northern Ireland in the absence of devolved government. However critics say there has been no real increase in service provision since then.

Emma Campbell, Co-Convener of Alliance for Choice NI, said: ”Despite our intense lobbying of the Secretary of State and the Minister for Health, women in Northern Ireland still cannot even find any information online about how to access abortion here.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Laura Denny, whose son Nathan has Down's syndrome, is supporting a legislative bid to prevent the termination of pregnancies in NI involving the condition.

While she argues that the UK government is obligated to resolve the situation under UN conventions and the Westminster legislation it passed for NI in 2019, some pro-life campaigners are worried that full commissioning for abortion in NI could take the annual figure for terminations up from double figures to 6,500 per year.

The Department of Health confirmed that it is not planning any imminent expansion of service provision.

“It has been the Health Minister’s stated position that this is a matter for the Executive as a whole to consider,” a spokesman said.

A Northern Ireland Office spokeswoman (NIO) confirmed it is considering pushing through further legislation at Westminster to break the Stormont log jam.

“We remain disappointed that the Department of Health and Northern Ireland Executive have failed to commission full abortion services, following the change to the law last March,” she told the News Letter. “We are continuing to monitor the situation closely, including considering further legislative action at Westminster, given the nature of the legal duties on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in this context.”

But the DUP responded to the NIO statement by issuing a “warning” and calling for an urgent meeting between official and party leader Arlene Foster.

The DUP’s Westminster Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the News Letter that any move by the NIO to legislate “over the head” of the NI Executive regarding the commissioning of abortion services would be a serious breach of the principle of devolution.

“Abortion is a devolved matter,” he said. “Whilst in Westminster abortion is a matter of conscience for all the main parties, any move by an NIO Minister to legislate over the head of the Northern Ireland Executive would raise serious questions about when and in what areas the Government can make interventions in a devolved administration.

“The DUP would warn the Northern Ireland Office against legislating on a matter which is wholly devolved and we will vigorously oppose such steps.

“When the Northern Ireland Executive was not functioning due to Sinn Fein’s boycott, the Government foisted the most liberal abortion laws anywhere in Europe upon Northern Ireland. That was wrongheaded and deeply damaging. Such laws would never have commanded a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“Our Party Leader Arlene Foster has asked for an urgent meeting with the Secretary of State. We will be underscoring that this matter rests with the Health Minister Robin Swann and the Government should leave it with the devolved structures to make such decisions.”

The DUP is currently pushing a bill through Stormont which aims to prevent abortion in cases of non-fatal-foetal disabilities, such as Down’s syndrome.

Mark Lambe, a spokesman for pro-life group Centre for Bioethical Reform NI, claimed: “What we will see at Stormont this week is a carefully choreographed dance where the DUP will be seen to be pushing back against abortion and Sinn Fein will be seen as trying to secure commissioning on Irish soil. All of this, however, is being done in the full knowledge that Westminster plan to step in the following week and bring forward legislation that will allow them to commission from Westminster.”

Green Party leader Clare Baily also suggested to the Assembly this week that the DUP bill will not be implemented and that Westminster will break the log-jam in favour of pro-choice campaigners.

“Even if passed, it [the DUP bill] will not be implemented if we are to believe the Secretary of State, so perhaps it is a stunt,” she said. “Who knows? Either way, I look forward to continuing to work with Westminster and the Secretary of State to have free, safe, legal services commissioned here for women in Northern Ireland, whereby they can access treatments and be free to make the choices that affect their own lives.”

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) warned that pressure from London for the wide-scale commissioning of abortion facilities in Northern Ireland means the Province is standing on the brink of “a human rights catastrophe which will eclipse the worst horrors of the Troubles”.

Liam Gibson, SPUC’s Northern Ireland Political Officer said: “Instead of pursuing purely cosmetic amendments to an unjust law [through the DUP bill], pro-life politicians should be pushing back against the threat that London is going to disregard devolution once again to ensure that as many of our children as possible are aborted. The commissioning of wide-scale abortion facilities within each health trust will bring about lethal violence on a scale not seen even in the worst days of the Troubles.”

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Alistair Bushe