Move to extend abortion to North may fail

 

MPs CAMPAIGNING for the extension of the British Abortion Act to Northern Ireland fear they may be "talked out" when the issue reaches the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Labour MP Diane Abbott has tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on behalf of women in Northern Ireland she has previously described as "second class citizens" denied the "right to choose" enshrined in the 1967 Abortion Act.

In face of the local political consensus, however - the main Northern Ireland parties are united in opposition - suspicions have grown that a "filibuster" or a government procedural motion will see the equality move fail for want of parliamentary time.

There has also been speculation that, having regard to Catholic opinion there, the Brown government will happily see a range of "pro-choice" amendments fall just weeks ahead of the crucial Glenrothes by-election in Scotland.

When the DUP's nine MPs originally backed prime minister Gordon Brown's now-abandoned plan to let police hold some terror suspects for 42 days both sides denied that any form of "deal" was done. At the same time, however, DUP sources privately indicated their confidence that the government would use the "payroll vote" at Westminster or otherwise deploy its influence to block the move by backbench Labour MPs to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

Given his possible dependence on DUP votes in a tight parliament following the next general election, similar confidence was expressed that Conservative leader David Cameron would likewise discourage his backbenchers from defying the Northern Ireland consensus on the issue.

Conservative sources last night dismissed the idea that an abortion vote could provide an early test of the promise contained in the proposed Conservative/Ulster Unionist "merger" to offer Northern Ireland voters a new form of politics. As with Labour, Tory MPs will enjoy a "free vote" on what is regarded as an individual "conscience" issue.

DUP junior minister Jeffrey Donaldson last week suggested that any attempt to liberalise the law in Northern Ireland would trigger "a constitutional crisis" and could "put an end" to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Few senior figures at Westminster appear to actually believe this, although the government plainly does not want any form of confrontation given the current stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the devolution of policing and justice powers.

The British government has acted twice in the past year in defiance of political opinion in the North - in lowering and equalising the age of sexual consent, and in outlawing discrimination on sexual orientation grounds in the provision of goods and services.

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, hundreds of pro-life campaigners attended a rally at Stormont on Saturday demanding that there be no change to abortion law in Northern Ireland, writes Gerry Moriarty.

The Rally for Life was supported by anti-abortion campaigners, politicians and church leaders. SDLP Assembly member Pat Ramsey said the rally was "a march for civil rights - to defend the most fundamental civil right of all - the right to life".