Northern secretary Brandon Lewis's plan to introduce regulations to implement abortion services in Northern Ireland next week is likely to trigger a row over both abortion and the undermining of devolution.
Mr Lewis appeared on course for a serious confrontation with the DUP in particular after informed sources said he intended to introduce new regulations in the House of Commons next week to direct Ulster Unionist Party Minister of Health Robin Swann to commission abortion services that were voted through at Westminster in 2019 when Stormont was suspended.
The Northern secretary's move comes after Belfast High Court granted the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission leave to take action against him and the North's Department of Health for failing to fully implement the new legislation.
The case is listed to take place at the High Court over two days towards the end of May. It is likely that Mr Lewis would cite this legal threat if he proceeds with his plan next week to override the Northern Executive and introduce the new abortion regulations.
Individual health trusts in the North have set up early abortion services but the Northern Executive has not yet authorised full services as per the 2019 Westminster vote, chiefly because of DUP opposition to such a move.
Under that legislation, which came into effect in March last year, 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.
On Monday, the Northern Assembly voted in favour of a DUP Private Members' Bill seeking to ban terminations in cases of non-fatal foetal disabilities.
The DUP supported the Bill while SDLP, Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance members had a free vote. Sinn Féin MLAs abstained, which prompted criticism from pro-choice advocates.
Mr Swann and the UUP have insisted that abortion is a cross-cutting matter – an issue for the Executive as a whole – and that were he to proceed with commissioning full services he would face a speedy judicial review. He has been supported in this view, it is understood, by the North’s attorney general Brenda King.
The DUP has sufficient Ministers on the Executive to veto any attempt to fully sanction abortion services, which in large measure has contributed to the current impasse.
First Minister Arlene Foster and Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson met Mr Lewis on Thursday to voice their concerns. However, sources said despite their warning that this was a serious undermining of devolution, Mr Lewis was determined to proceed with his plan to take action next week.
Warning that the DUP would "vigorously oppose" Mr Lewis's planned move, Mr Donaldson said: "When the Northern Ireland Executive was not functioning due to Sinn Féin's boycott, the [British] government foisted the most liberal abortion laws anywhere in Europe upon Northern Ireland. Such laws would never have commanded a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly. "
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that "ducking difficult issues should no longer be an option" for the Executive.
The Church of Ireland primate, Archbishop John McDowell, said it was a "matter of regret" that Mr Lewis intended to take action at Westminster "around what clearly is a devolved matter".
“There may have been an element of justification for seeking powers of this sort when the Northern Ireland Assembly was not functioning, but such justification manifestly does not apply now,” he said.
The Presbyterian Church in a statement expressed “grave concerns” at Mr Lewis’s proposals and called on him not to proceed with his plan.