UK moves to compel introduction of abortion services in North

Northern Secretary given power to direct Stormont Minister to ‘meet legal obligations’

The UK government has intervened to compel the introduction of full abortion services in Northern Ireland.

It said it had taken the step because of the lack of progress almost a year after abortion was decriminalised in the North.

"We have reached a point where it remains clear that the Department of Health [in Northern Ireland] will not move forward to make positive progress on this matter," the UK government said.

Outlining the reasons for the intervention in a written ministerial statement on Tuesday, Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis said he was "disappointed" this impasse had been reached.

“The regulations have been made because women and girls in Northern Ireland are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland,” he said.

The regulations laid before the UK parliament on Tuesday give the Northern Secretary the power to “direct a Northern Ireland Minister, a Northern Ireland department, the Health and Social Care Board and the Public Health Agency” to ensure the North meets its legal obligations regarding the introduction of abortion services.”

Health is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and Mr Lewis said the UK government had carefully considered the available options and made the decision “while respecting the devolution settlement and healthcare being a transferred matter”.

The DUP, which is anti-abortion and opposed to the change in the law, has previously warned that intervention by the UK government would represent a breach of the devolution settlement.

The First Minister, the DUP leader Arlene Foster, criticised the move and said the Northern Secretary was "overreaching into the devolved space".

“It’s up to the devolved administration how they deal with these issues and therefore he is acting beyond what he should be doing,” she said.

The Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, of Sinn Féin, said that a year after the legislation had been passed it was “so unfair that women have been denied access to modern and compassionate healthcare services”.

She urged the North’s Minister for Health to commission abortion services, saying that it should be the Northern Executive that “decides and makes sure that we deliver these services”.

Mr Lewis said the UK government did “not take this step lightly” but “the devolution settlement does not absolve us of our responsibility to uphold the rights of women and girls. Our strong preference remains for the Northern Ireland Executive to take responsibility itself for upholding these rights.”

More than 80 MPs, including representatives from the SDLP and Alliance Party, have written to Stormont ministers outlining the cross-party support for the move.

The law on abortion in Northern Ireland was changed in October 2019 as a result of legislation passed in the UK parliament while the devolved administration at Stormont was suspended.

Under the legal framework for access to abortion services published by the UK government, which became law on March 31st, 2020, abortion was to be made available in Northern Ireland without restriction until the 12th week of pregnancy.

Abortions are also available up until 24 weeks if the continuation of the pregnancy would involve a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health greater than that of termination, and with no time limit in the case of severe foetal impairment or fatal foetal abnormality, or if there is a risk of death or grave permanent injury to the pregnant woman.

However, there have been delays in implementing the legislation because of the coronavirus pandemic, and while some services have been established within the North's Health and Social Care Trusts, they have not been commissioned by the Department of Health and some women have continued to travel to England for abortion services.

The North's Minister for Health, Robin Swann, has said he cannot commission services without the approval of all five parties in the Northern Executive as it is his legal responsibility to refer controversial or significant decisions to other Ministers.

The UK government has a legal obligation to ensure that women in Northern Ireland have access to abortion services which are CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women] compliant, as in the rest of the UK.

The intervention by the Northern Secretary, the UK government said, was a “necessary and appropriate means” of ensuring these legal obligations are met.

“After a year of engaging to see positive progress made, with no success,” Mr Lewis said, his legal duties required him to “act now”.

The regulations will now be considered by the UK parliament.

A legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is due to be heard later this year over the failure to make abortion services fully available in Northern Ireland. – Additional reporting: PA.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times