Westminster could legalise abortion in North, British-Irish assembly told

Gathering hears argument that human rights ‘not a devolved matter’

Lord Alf Dubs told the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly  that abortion could be passed into law by Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly if party talks restored the power-sharing government in Belfast. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Lord Alf Dubs told the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly that abortion could be passed into law by Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly if party talks restored the power-sharing government in Belfast. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

 

Abortion could be legalised in Northern Ireland if the House of Commons chose to legislate on the matter as a human rights issue, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly has heard.

Lord Alf Dubs, the British Labour politician, told the gathering of parliamentarians in Co Wicklow that abortion could be passed into law by Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly if party talks restored the power-sharing government in Belfast.

An alternative path, he said, was for the British government “to go down the human rights path” on the basis that human rights was “not a devolved matter” and should be legislated for at Westminster.

It could be argued that the “present position in Northern Ireland denies human rights to women and therefore human rights should be the responsibility of the Westminster government and it could be legislated upon without a devolved government,” he said on the second day of the 58th gathering of Irish and British parliamentarians.

Row

The UK’s 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland. British prime minister Theresa May has said that a government at Stormont should deal with the issue of abortion, but the North has not had an executive since 2017 when the governing parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, split in a row over a botched energy scheme.

Since then, a UN committee and the UK supreme court has identified breaches of women’s rights in Northern Ireland, while the UK government has introduced funding for women to access free abortion services in England.

The issue of abortion in Northern Ireland was one of the more contentious topics at the assembly on Tuesday.

Lord Dubs, chair of a committee of the assembly that examined the issue of women who travel for abortions, said anti-abortion opposition on the committee meant it had to produce a minority report.

“If we didn’t have a minority report, the whole thing would die a death,” the Labour peer said.

Paul Girvan, the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party MP for South Antrim, said he wanted a minority report because the draft report “focuses almost entirely on Northern Ireland” and “only deals with women’s rights and not the rights of the unborn child”.

Caution

He urged the assembly to “proceed with caution” on the issue as legislating for abortion in Northern Ireland at Westminster would make him fundamentally question his support for a devolved government in Belfast.

“Take that away and some people will be questioning the relevancy of devolution if there isn’t the ability for the United Kingdom to respect the different cultures and different approaches to these issues,” he said.

Noting the legalisation of abortion in the Republic, former Northern Ireland secretary of state, Lord Paul Murphy, said the “world is changing” and urged the assembly “to be careful” not to go against possible political and constitutional developments in Northern Ireland in the coming months should the assembly be restored.

Northern Ireland assembly members could bring a “petition of concern” on abortion or same-sex marriage requiring a 60 per cent majority of members, including at least 40 per cent of nationalists or unionists, he said.

British Labour MP Karin Smyth told the assembly that it had to accept that “the situation is a moving feast”, constitutionally and legally, across jurisdictions” and that it had to reflect this by the time it reports in October.

“A lot of things may have changed at that point,” she said.