Secretary of State Brandon Lewis can direct any minister, department or body to promote abortion from next week - unionists and churches express ‘grave concern’ for devolution

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis will next week assign himself powers to direct any NI minister, department and body to promote abortion in line with United Nations human rights requirements.

Saturday, 20th March 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Saturday, 20th March 2021, 8:43 am
Brandon Lewis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

It is understand the minister is hoping that by taking the powers to himself he can pressure the NI Executive to roll out full abortion services across NI.

The move has caused grave concern among unionists and churches, who believe it seriously undermines devolution and the role of the assembly.

Abortion laws in NI were controversailly relaxed by MPs at Westminster in 2019 at a time when powersharing was collapsed.

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Secretary of State Brandon Lewis

New regulations came into operation a year ago and while individual health trusts are offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services on a region-wide basis, meaning some women are still travelling to GB for abortions.

Amid an ongoing stand-off within the Stormont executive on the issue, Mr Lewis is set to act, by way of regulation at Westminster, to direct the department to commission the services.

However, despite reports that his powers will be limited to health bodies only, the News Letter can confirm that his powers will actually extend over any minister, department of relevant body when it comes to implementing UN recommendations on abortion for Northern Ireland.

This means, for example, that he will have the power to direct compulsory education to reduce stigma on abortion in schools, public advertising campaigns to reduce stigma and promote services, and to ensure street signage to abortion clinics are erected.

In order to retain his new powers on the issue, his move must be debated by both Houses of Parliament within 28 days, however neither MPs nor peers will have any veto over his new powers.

The News Letter understands his move is calculated into pressurising the Executive into commissioning full abortion services before he directs NI authorities himself to do so himself.

He has not yet openly said he intends to take the powers to himself though he has tweeted about his impatience in rolling out full abortion provision in NI.

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and DUP leader Arlene Foster met with Mr Lewis on Thursday to voice objection, and they have vowed to “vigorously oppose” the move.

Sir Jeffrey told BBC Radio Ulster: “In the first instance we will of course oppose these regulations because we think it is wrong for Westminster to go over the head of a fully functioning Executive and Assembly.

“It represents a fundamental breach of the devolution settlement, we will engage with the other political parties to see how we respond to this but we are very clear – we will need to consider carefully what this means for the future operation of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.”

Health Minister Robin Swann has made clear that he will not commission the services without the approval of the wider five-party coalition Executive.

However, the issue has yet to be brought forward for consideration by the Executive due to an impasse between the two main parties – Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Under Stormont rules, controversial decisions in Northern Ireland must be considered by the wider administration and cannot be taken solely by individual departments.

Mr Swann has said a decision taken without Executive approval would not withstand a legal challenge.

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin need to agree for any policy proposal to be placed on the agenda of the Executive.

Sinn Féin, which backs the introduction of the services, has accused the pro-life DUP of blocking consideration of the issue.

Sinn Féin minister Deirdre Hargey attempted to bring her own paper to the Executive this week in a bid to get services commissioned.

However, the paper again did not get on the agenda of the meeting.

Ms Hargey said it would be regrettable if Mr Lewis has to intervene.

She told Radio Ulster: “I think it’s unfortunate and unnecessary when we have our ministers here and an Executive and really commissioning these services should be done locally.

“I think there’s consistent blockages at the Executive and it’s certainly not coming from Sinn Fein and from some of other parties. We are in support of the commissioning of the services, it’s been long overdue.

“It’s quite obvious that if that doesn’t happen then the British Secretary of State is going to take on powers in order to do that.”

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw told the BBC: “I very much believe that this move by the Secretary of State will put the onus back on the health minister to proceed with the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland.”

She added that it was “disgraceful” that women in England have had access to abortion for 50 years while women in NI have not.

UUP leader, Steve Aiken accepted that Mr Lewis could take such powers to himself.

”But it could have a significant impact on devolution and could have implications not just here in Northern Ireland, but also in Scotland and Wales,” he said. “The Government are not only playing fast and loose with the Belfast Agreement, but also with the devolution settlement.”

But TUV leader Jim Allister said Westminster was “aborting devolved powers”.

He added: “If we can be subject to Direct Rule when it suits the moral issues which matter to many, then, this highly retrograde step does indeed throw up searching questions as to what devolution is contributing, especially when it comes at the price of Sinn Fein rule on everything else?”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood responded that it is “a matter of regret that the Executive has failed to commission services in line with its legal obligations”. He added: “This is a devolved matter and should have been dealt with by Ministers here”.

Green party leader Care Bailey MLA backed the involvement of the UK government.

“It’s an affront to women that we are still being denied reproductive healthcare a year since the decriminalisation of abortion and over fifty years since abortion was legalised by the UK Government,” she said.

But all-Ireland party Aontú says it is seeking legal advice to protect the Good Friday Agreement from “the Tory Imposition of Abortion”.

Aontú Deputy Leader and Mid Ulster Councillor Denise Mullen said: “From the outset, the imposition of abortion on the North by Westminster has been undemocratic and in complete violation of the Good Friday Agreement. We in Aontú have been speaking to our legal representatives to seek a legal route to protect devolution, the Good Friday Agreement and the lives of the weakest amongst us.”

Londonderry Aontú Councillor Emmet Doyle and party leader Peadar Tóibín TD have sought a meeting with Brandon Lewis to challenge “the damage being done to the Good Friday Agreement by the Tory Imposition of Abortion”.

Mr Doyle said that “this betrayal comes not from Unionist parties, but from so-called Nationalists”.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland denominations said yesterday that the Secretary of State taking control of abortion would undermine a functioning assembly.

The Presbyterian Church yesterday “noted with grave concern” the proposal.

The church added that it “objected strongly to the Westminster government previously imposing laws on Northern Ireland that removed the protection of the lives of unborn children. This damaging step was taken over the heads of our elected Assembly, with the excuse given that the devolved institutions were not functioning at that time. No such excuse for the undermining of devolution can be used at this time.”

The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh Rev John McDowell said it was “a matter of regret” that the Secretary of State intends to seek such powers.

“There may have been an element of justification for seeking powers of this sort when the Northern Ireland Assembly was not functioning, but such justification manifestly does not apply now,” he said.

He added that this comes as “a vast number” of laws are passed in Westminster for NI, particularly in relation to the NI Protocol, and “receive minimal or no scrutiny in any form”.

Meanwhile, five Pro-Life groups have called on MLAs to withdraw from the assembly if the Secretary of State directs NI departments over the matter.

The statement yesterday came from the Centre for Bioethical Reform, NI Voiceless, The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and Precious Life.

“Due to the urgency of the situation, we call on all MLAs who profess to be pro-life to stoutly resist any such imposition and further, in the case of Westminster imposing these measures, to withdraw from the Assembly and Executive with immediate effect,” it said.

“We call on all pro-life people to make their voice heard by phoning their MLAs.”

The group says it is holding an online gathering today on the issues.

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