Former DUP leader and current agriculture minister, Edwin Poots, has said Northern Ireland’s First Minister Robin Swann and other devolved ministers should ignore Westminster’s attempts to force the Northern Ireland executive to commission abortion services.
Poots, who himself held the post of health minister from 2011 to 2014, made the comment after Brandon Lewis MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, laid out a formal timetable for forcing the commissioning of abortion services last Thursday.
1,556 abortions have occurred in Northern Ireland since March 2020, and this number is likely to increase if abortion is fully funded and commissioned across Northern Ireland, which the executive has not agreed to.
An uncertain legal path
Earlier this year, the government passed the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021. The regulation granted the Northern Ireland Secretary sweeping new powers to impose expanded abortion access on Northern Ireland.
The Belfast Newsletter reports that the regulations do not specify what actions – if any – Brandon Lewis would be able to take to compel the devolved ministers if they chose to ignore his direction.
When the News Letter queried this with the Northern Ireland Office, it could not specify any penalties at its disposal.
“I don’t believe there is the support in Northern Ireland for this”
Mr Poots was asked if Robin Swann and his colleagues should ignore Mr Lewis’ instructions.
“Yes I do”, said Mr Poots.
“And I think it should be tested legally”.
“I don’t believe there is the support in Northern Ireland for this. Previously when it was tested it didn’t have the significant support to proceed”.
“Therefore, I’ll certainly be looking at seeking legal advice on all of this. I’m sure Minister Swann will [too]”.
“The DUP has been, and will continue to be, wholly opposed to the abortion proposals brought forward by Brandon Lewis, and we’ll seek to resist them whatever way possible”.
Northern Ireland must commission abortion services by March 2022
Brandon Lewis has issued specific directions. The Northern Ireland Department of Health has been directed to continue providing funding to the Central Access Point provided by Informing Choices NI (ICNI). Informing Choices is a lobby group that currently runs a phone line that provides abortion referrals to local abortion services. He has also set 31 March 2022 as the date on which “fully commissioned CEDAW compliant services” must be available.
If abortion services are fully commissioned, disability-selective abortion will be available up to the point of birth for all disabilities, including cleft lip, cleft palate, club foot and Down’s syndrome. It would also see de facto abortion on demand available through to 24 weeks and allow sex-selective abortion through 12 weeks.
The Department of Health and the Regional Health and Social Care Board has been directed to:
“Commission, provide and fund abortion services so that they are available in all of the circumstances in which abortions are lawful”. Brandon Lewis expects the Northern Ireland Executive to allocate the funding for the abortion services.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister have been directed to include proposals brought forward by the Department of Health in this regard at the next meeting of the Executive Committee.
Information gained from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that health officials in Northern Ireland met in December 2019 to discuss how many abortions the region should expect if abortion services were commissioned after Westminster voted to impose abortion on the region in July 2019.
According to notes from the meeting: “Service needs to be scaleable [sic] (if service take-up reaches […] England and Wales levels that figure could be 6,500)”.
Widespread opposition in Northern Ireland
There has been widespread opposition to the imposing of abortion regulations on Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion opposing the regulations that have been imposed on the province by the UK Government. Across the two votes held, 75 of 90 MLAs voted against the provisions in the regulations allowing abortion for non-fatal disabilities. 79% of respondents to the Government consultation on the regulations were opposed to any abortion provision in Northern Ireland beyond what was previously permitted.
An open letter signed by over 18,000 people from Northern Ireland was delivered to the Prime Minister by disability campaigner Heidi Crowter, who has Down’s syndrome. The letter called on MPs to oppose the regulations and let the Northern Ireland Assembly decide on abortion law for Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said: “Mr Poots is spot on. There is little proof of support for these extreme measures in Northern Ireland, and it is shameful that the UK Government deems it appropriate to undermine devolution for the purpose of installing one of the most extreme abortion regimes in Europe”.
“The passing of the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill by such an overwhelming majority of MLAs and the huge public support behind this Bill shows that there is no appetite for further Westminster imposition of abortion on Northern Ireland”.