Since January 2017, the Government has consistently and repeatedly underlined its commitment to devolution in Northern Ireland, particularly as it relates to the issue of abortion. 

In its opening statement in response to the CEDAW Committee report the Government stated its view that devolution must be restored as “progress in Northern Ireland on some areas of the Convention will be subject to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive”: 

“The UK Government does not believe that the current situation in Northern Ireland should dislodge the principle that it is for the devolved administrations to ensure human rights compliance in relation to devolved matters. Progress in Northern Ireland on some areas of the Convention will be subject to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive, and therefore the UK Government view is that Northern Ireland needs its elected representatives back in Government at the earliest opportunity, with Ministers taking important decisions on a range of issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland.” [1]

During the Conservative and Unionist Party leadership contest, Boris Johnson MP (now Prime Minister) argued, whilst talking about abortion in Northern Ireland, that Stormont was the “forum where it properly belongs”:

“To risk sounding like a cracked record, I hope the government of Northern Ireland can be resumed as soon as possible so this issue can be decided in the forum where it properly belongs, in other words at Stormont.” [2]

During a Parliamentary Report pursuant to various sections of the NI Act, Lord Duncan of Springbank (then Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)) gave assurances that it was the Government’s preference for the implementation of the abortion framework to be taken forward by Stormont:

“In addition to the reporting requirements, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 requires the UK Parliament to introduce laws on same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships, abortion and victims’ payments. I recognise that these are sensitive, devolved issues and this Government’s preference is that they are taken forward by a restored Executive and functioning Assembly.” [3]

This followed a written statement from the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith MP, who confirmed that the Government would prefer for a restored Northern Ireland executive to make any change in regard to abortion legislation:

“The Government’s preference remains that any change to law on either of these sensitive devolved issues (abortion & same-sex marriage) is taken forward by a restored Executive and functioning Assembly. It remains the hope that devolved government can be restored at the earliest opportunity through the current talks process.” [4]

When the Government released the consultation, Julian Smith MP (then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) wrote in the foreword that he was “acutely aware that the provision of abortion services are devolved to Northern Ireland”, and that “the best way of dealing with this issue would be to form an Executive”:

“In considering these proposals, I remain acutely aware that the provision of abortion services are devolved to Northern Ireland, including health and social services. I am also deeply sympathetic to the fact that this is a highly sensitive and complex matter, with differing and strongly held views across society.

“I have made the case to party leaders in Northern Ireland that the best way of dealing with this issue would be to form an Executive that could take forward these commitments in the best interests in Northern Ireland – unfortunately, this has not been possible to achieve.” 

Moreover, the introduction to the consultation document notes that the UK Parliament would not normally make laws in respect to devolved matters “without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive”:

“It is acknowledged that there are a number of areas relevant to the provision of abortion services that are devolved to Northern Ireland, including health and social services. The UK Parliament however, retains the power to make laws for Northern Ireland, although it would not normally do so in respect of devolved matters without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.” [5]

In the run-up to the 2019 General Election, the Conservative Party Manifesto further stated the Party’s commitment to “strengthening the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”, including working to restore the NI Assembly:

“We will continue to work with all sides to re-establish the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly so that the people of Northern Ireland can enjoy the full advantages of devolved government for the benefit of the whole community.” [6]

In January of this year, Robin Walker, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, noted the following in a Westminster debate: 

“The hon. Member for Rochdale asked what we could do if the Executive were restored. If that were to happen before 31 March, we would welcome discussions on the regulations that will be made, and questions on implementation, which of course will be taken forward by the Northern Ireland Department of Health. As these are devolved matters, any reform after March 2020 can of course be considered by the Executive and the Assembly, subject to such legislation complying with convention rights and the usual Assembly procedures. This is yet another of those issues where, if we want the concerns and views of people in Northern Ireland to be properly heard, we must ensure that the institutions are in place.” [7]

[1] 26 February 2019, Opening Statement to CEDAW Committee: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/opening-statement-to-cedaw-committee   

[2] 2 July 2019, The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/northern-ireland-abortion-ban-boris-johnson-same-sex-marriage-jeremy-hunt-tory-leadership-a8984866.html

[3] 9 September 2019, Hansard, House of Lords, Volume 799, Column 1356: http://bit.ly/300tZit 

[4] 4 September 2019, Hansard, House of Commons, Volume 664, Column 14WS: http://bit.ly/2PNRbwB

[5] 4 November 2019, Northern Ireland Office, A new legal framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/a-new-legal-framework-for-abortion-services-in-northern-ireland

[6] November 2019, Conservative Party Manifesto, p.44: https://assets-global.website-files.com/5da42e2cae7ebd3f8bde353c/5dda924905da587992a064ba_Conservative%202019%20Manifesto.pdf

[7]  8 January 2020, Hansard, House of Commons, Volume 669, Column 573: http://bit.ly/2RexDjt