Remarks by Iris Robinson raise doubts over Tory pact with DUP


FIRST MINISTER Peter Robinson appears confident he can count on the help of prime minister Gordon Brown and the Conservative leadership at Westminster to defeat attempts to extend the British Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

However, it has become clear that the widespread anger generated by his MP wife Iris Robinson's views on homosexuality has raised further doubts about the possibility of any formal House of Commons alliance between the DUP and a future Conservative government led by David Cameron.

Amid speculation about the imminent renewal of the link between the Tories and Ulster Unionists, possibly as early as today, a senior Tory source told The Irish Times: "When you think of everything David Cameron has done in an effort to detoxify the Conservative brand, an arrangement with somebody who has expressed such views about homosexuality and the role of government is just impossible."

As DUP leader, Mr Robinson has had several meetings with Mr Cameron over the past fortnight as part of a mutual effort to "mend fences" after the DUP's nine MPs backed Mr Brown's proposal to permit the detention of terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge in certain conditions.

The apparently successful nature of these meetings with the Tory leader - coupled with the "understanding" secured from Mr Brown that the government will not propose any change to the law - has convinced DUP MPs that they can successfully see off an effort by a cross-party group of backbenchers to extend the abortion law to Northern Ireland by way of an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the autumn.

Labour MP Diane Abbott confirmed the move, saying she believed it had "a very good chance" of success when MPs return from their summer break. However, while the DUP and Mr Brown continue to deny any "deal" done over the 42-day vote, the DUP's expectation is that the government would use the "payroll" vote to help defeat the proposal.

The fact that the Ulster Unionists, like all the main parties, are against changing the law in Northern Ireland would almost certainly see the Tory leadership discourage support for the amendment, although Conservative MPs would have a "free vote" on such a "conscience" issue.

Ms Abbott told the BBC's Todayprogramme: "When it comes to abortion rights, Northern Ireland women are effectively second-class citizens. They do not have the same rights as women in England and Wales and Scotland. They even have fewer rights than women in the Republic of Ireland."