The Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, has announced that the Conservative Government has introduced regulations to Parliament that will give the Northern Ireland Secretary new powers to enable him to force Stormont to to expand abortion access across Northern Ireland through the commissioning of abortion services.
The regulations confer on the Secretary of State the power to direct the First Minister, deputy First Minister, a Northern Ireland Minister, a Northern Ireland department, the Regional Health and Social Care Board, and the Regional Agency for Public Health and Social Well-being.
The new regulations will provide Brandon Lewis with the new powers from March 31 2021, but they will need to be debated in both houses of Parliament – within 28 sitting days – to remain in force.
The UK Government and various pro-abortion advocacy groups have been pressuring the Northern Ireland Health Minister, Robin Swann, to commission abortion procedures across the region since the start of this year when one of the five NHS trusts was unable to perform abortions because a doctor was on maternity leave.
Cross-community opposition from political parties in Northern Ireland
Ahead of the announcement this afternoon, the DUP warned that it would “represent a very serious breach of the devolution settlement” and will be opposed by the party.
The DUP is not alone in its concerns about further Westminster interference in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin Communities Minister Deidre Hargey MLA said the intervention from Mr Lewis was “unfortunate and unnecessary”.
TUV leader Jim Allister questioned the point in continuing with devolution if the NI Secretary can overrule the Assembly.
“If we can be subject to direct rule when it suits on the moral issues which matter to many, then, this highly retrograde step does indeed throw up searching questions as to what devolution is contributing […]”.
There is widespread opposition to further Westminster interference on this matter from both the public and other parties in Northern Ireland.
The leader of the DUP in Westminster, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has said this intervention will set a “dangerous precedent” and represent a “dangerous breach of the devolution settlement”.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, he said that coming to a consensus “is the whole basis of devolution in Northern Ireland, it is not about one side imposing its view on the other in a particular argument, it is the responsibility of ministers in the Executive to reach a consensus, not the Secretary of State”.
“If he can do it on this then it could happen on many other areas and would leave the devolved institutions in the position where their credibility is being constantly undermined”.
“It creates a very dangerous precedent when the government at Westminster intervenes to go over the head of the Executive and Assembly in circumstances where that Executive and Assembly is fully functioning and has the right and and the power to take those decisions”.
The Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill has just passed its second stage at the Northern Ireland Assembly by 48 votes to 12. The Bill, launched by Paul Givan MLA, will provide protections for babies in the womb with disabilities, who currently can be aborted up to term.
Over 27,500 people have signed a petition in support of the Bill and 1,608 people with Down’s syndrome and their families signed an open letter to party leaders in Northern Ireland urging them to support the Bill.
No such excuse for the undermining of devolution can be used at this time
The initial justification for the imposition of abortion on Northern Ireland in 2019 arose from the absence of a functioning Executive. However, the Presbyterian Church, who remain opposed to this Westminster intervention, have said: “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”.
While abortion was forced on Northern Ireland in March 2020, the Executive has yet to commission a national policy. Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann has come under considerable pressure since the start of this year when one of the five NHS trusts was unable to perform abortions because a doctor was on maternity leave.
Mr Swann has continued to argue that, as a controversial issue, it is the task of the Executive to agree to set up the services and not the responsibility of any one department. He added that a ministerial decision to commission and fund abortion would not be defensible in court in the absence of Executive approval.
Officials estimated that the region could see up to 6,500 terminations annually.
According to information gained from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, 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)”.
Since March last year, when the new abortion regime came into force, 1,091 abortions took place in Northern Ireland.
Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “The Conservative Government, which claims to take a neutral stance on abortion, has today given the Northern Ireland Secretary the power to directly undermine devolution to force more abortion on Northern Ireland. This is while there is a sitting Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been elected by the people of Northern Ireland, to make decisions on devolved matters including abortion. If he goes ahead and exercises these powers, this extraordinary move is essentially direct rule from Westminster”.
“It appears that abortion advocates in the Northern Ireland Office are more than willing to ignore precedent and established relations between Stormont and Westminster in their pursuit of abortion expansion, no matter what the cost”.
“Parties in Northern Ireland are right to be concerned about the undermining of the devolution settlement. As many have already suggested, quite what is the point of devolution if it can simply be ignored when the Northern Ireland Executive fails to make a decision that Westminster wants them to make?”
“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. Sadly though, abortion fanatics in the Government are hardly likely to let a trifle like ‘the will of the people’ and ‘respect for sovereignty’ to get in the way of their plans to expand abortion access at all costs”.