The Irish Times view on abortion in Northern Ireland: London intervenes

The British government had no real choice but to move to compel Stormont to introduce access to abortion services

Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis went over the heads of ministers in the Executive in Belfast to compel the introduction of full abortion services in the North. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/ AFP via Getty Images

Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis went over the heads of ministers in the Executive in Belfast to compel the introduction of full abortion services in the North. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/ AFP via Getty Images

 

The three-way standoff over abortion between the British government, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has put the protagonists in uncomfortable positions. In supporting the decision of Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to go over the heads of ministers in the Executive in Belfast and compel the introduction of full abortion services in the North, Sinn Féin finds itself lauding the unilateral intervention of a government whose legitimacy it rejects. In opposing London’s move, the DUP for its part is arguing for regulatory divergence from Britain – just the thing it has spent almost five years claiming would breach its voters’ rights and undermine the union.

The British government had little real choice but to move. Almost a year has passed since abortion was decriminalised in the North by a vote of MPs at Westminister at a time when the power-sharing institutions in Belfast were collapsed. While individual health trusts are offering services on an ad hoc basis, the North’s Department of Health has yet formally to commission services on a region-wide basis. As a result, women from Northern Ireland are still travelling to England to access abortions. Health is a devolved matter in the North, and Lewis said his government made the decision “while respecting the devolution settlement and healthcare being a transferred matter”.

More than 80 MPs, including representatives from the SDLP and the Alliance Party, have written to Stormont ministers outlining the cross-party support for Lewis’s move. But the North’s Minister for Health Robin Swann insists he cannot commission the services without the approval of the five-party Executive. The DUP has so far blocked that from happening.

It would have been preferable for the Executive to have made the decision. But faced with an impasse that appears unlikely to end any time soon, London had a choice between respecting procedural niceties under devolution or acting to vindicate the legal rights of women and girls. It cannot have been a difficult choice.

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