Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster has told Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis to "back off" in a row over the introduction of more liberal abortion legislation.
The DUP leader was reacting to Mr Lewis’s intervention in the House of Commons on Tuesday, where he said he was taking on the power to compel health minister Robin Swann to bring in full abortion services in the North because the Executive could not agree on the issue.
The matter was raised again by DUP MP Carla Lockhart in the House of Commons on Thursday, who told Mr Lewis he was in “breach of the Belfast Agreement” and was undermining devolution. Mr Lewis defended his action.
New abortion legislation for the North was introduced at Westminster in 2019 while powersharing at Stormont was suspended. Currently some health trusts are carrying out abortions up to the first 10 weeks of pregnancy but because of DUP opposition there is no full centralised service in operation.
At a press conference in Dungannon, Co Tyrone with Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Ms Foster said the DUP's position was "that both lives matter, and whilst we've spent this past year trying to save lives through Covid-19, we should also try and save lives in the womb".
She said it was “quite wrong” of Mr Lewis “to say abortions haven’t been happening here, and of course we deeply regret that to be the case”. About 1,000 had taken place in the North in the past year, she said.
“This is a hugely complex, controversial, legally challenging issue for the Executive but let us be very clear, it is for the Executive, it is not for Brandon Lewis, and I think not only did my colleagues make that clear today in the House of Commons, but a number of Brandon Lewis’s colleagues made that clear to him today,” added Ms Foster.
She said the new abortion law came in at Westminster in 2019 because devolution was suspended. “There is devolution now and he should back off,” she said of Mr Lewis.
Ms O'Neill said the Executive should "commission services" and that her Sinn Féin colleague Deirdre Hargey attempted to raise the issue at Thursday's Executive meeting but it did not get on to the agenda.
“The Executive needs to take a decision on this issue, and my very clear view is that one year post the legislation being brought into effect, women are being failed...I believe that it’s been a failure that those services haven’t been commissioned.”