The Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis has instructed the Northern Executive to make full abortion services available in Northern Ireland no later than the end of March next year.
On Thursday Mr Lewis issued a formal requirement for the North's health department, its Minister Robin Swann, the Health and Social Care Board, and First and Deputy First Minister, Paul Givan and Michelle O'Neill to commission and make abortion services available in Northern Ireland "as soon as possible, and no later than March 31st, 2022".
Mr Lewis also directed that the Department of Health should provide immediate funding support for interim provision of early medical abortion which, he said, was "at risk of collapse".
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.
Under that legislation abortion is permitted in Northern Ireland in all circumstances up to 12 weeks. It is also allowed up to 24 weeks when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health.
There is no time limit in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when there has been a diagnosis of a serious physical or mental impairment that would cause a serious disability.
The Department of Health has reported that since March 2020 there were 1,556 abortions in Northern Ireland.
Mr Lewis said on Thursday he was "extremely disappointed" full services had not been commissioned by the Northern Executive. "The lack of discussion on this important issue in the Executive Committee means that I have been left with no choice but to issue the direction," he said.
“I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access healthcare, as set out in the 2020 regulations,” he added.
Grainne Teggart of Amnesty Northern Ireland in response said that "once again action from Westminster has been necessary to ensure abortion rights are realised here".
“Services in line with our new law have been a long time coming; commissioning must now be swift to bring an end to the unacceptable denial of healthcare,” she said.
The DUP Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart said while abortion was a “matter that divides opinion and on which strongly held views exist it is important that local politicians are given the time and space to find consensus that reflects local public opinion on this issue”.
She said Mr Lewis’s move had undermined devolution.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted, “Finally women here can have access to the modern and compassionate healthcare services they are legally entitled to. The blockage of these rights by DUP and unionism has now been overcome.”
The Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance also welcomed Mr Lewis’s intervention while Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said the action of Mr Lewis demonstrated that devolution was a “sham”.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland said it was “deeply regrettable that Mr Lewis did not take time to reflect on how destructive his imposed legislation will be for future generations of unborn children in Northern Ireland”.
In a statement Presbyterian church leaders said, “It is also astonishing that in today’s written statement seeking to further impose his will on the devolved institutions, he describes this as his ‘moral obligation’.
There is nothing ‘moral’ about this destructive direction, nor indeed the original legislation that he previously inflicted on the people of Northern Ireland.”