Northern Ireland’s Health Minister has defended his handling of a Stormont stand-off over the commissioning of abortion services in the region.
Robin Swann was answering an urgent oral question in the Northern Assembly on the ongoing failure to commission services, a year on from the introduction of regulations liberalising the law on terminations.
While individual health trusts are offering services on an ad-hoc basis, Mr Swann’s Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services on a region-wide basis.
Mr Swann has made clear that he will not commission the services without the approval of the wider five-party coalition Executive, insisting it is his legal responsibility to refer controversial or significant decisions to the other Ministers.
However, for such an issue to secure executive approval, both of the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, must agree to it.
The anti-abortion DUP has to date blocked Mr Swann’s proposal.
Amid the impasse, the British government is this week set to intervene at Westminster and hand Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis the power to direct Mr Swann’s department to commission the services.
Mr Swann told the assembly on Monday that he tabled proposals around the commissioning of services in April and May last year and followed those up with a letter in November.
“As the Executive has not agreed to this proposal, no further work has been taken forward by my department,” he told MLAs.
During assembly questions, several pro-choice MLAs insisted Mr Swann had the ability to commission the services without the approval of the wider Executive.
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw, who tabled the urgent oral question, said: “You have used this excuse on numerous occasions as to why you brought it to the Executive, can you please outline how it is a cross-cutting matter?
“Also there is an accusation that you were bringing these proposals to the Executive because you believed or you knew that they will be blocked by the DUP.”
Mr Swann accused Ms Bradshaw of personalising the issue upon him.
“In regards to the cross-cutting nature of the commissioning of abortion in Northern Ireland, my department does not dispute that women in Northern Ireland are legally entitled to abortion services,” he said.
“I am satisfied that I have executed my duty as Health Minister by bringing this matter, under the terms of the Ministerial Code, to the Executive to discuss and agree, and I stand by my view that the commission of abortion services could be considered as significant or controversial and outside the scope of the Programme for Government.
“The commission of this service would also seem to cut across the human rights responsibilities of the First and Deputy First Ministers.
“In view of this I’m obliged, under the Ministerial Code, to bring this matter to the Executive to discuss and agree before the matter can be proceeded.”
The DUP’s Pam Cameron backed Mr Swann’s stance.
“The DUP is a pro-life party focused on saving lives, not on taking them,” she said.
“The commissioning of abortion services is a cross-cutting matter, indeed there’s nothing more controversial than this particular topic.
‘Oppressive abortion agenda’
“It’s quite ironic that Sinn Féin MPs, whose MPs can’t even be bothered to take their seats at Westminster, seem happy to rely on UK ministers to implement their oppressive abortion agenda.”
Mr Swann was then involved in an exchange with Sinn Féin MLA Emma Sheerin when he suggested she had called him a “liar” from her Assembly seat.
It came after Ms Sheerin asked the Minister what he had to say to women having to travel to England to access services during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Minister was in the middle of answering the republican MLA when he reacted to something she said having resumed her seat.
“I’m not a liar, no matter what the member says,” he said.
Mr Swann added: “I have never said I will not commission these services, what I have said is I have a duty, as Minister of Health, to bring any proposal to the Executive in regards to the commissioning of services.”
At the close of the debate, Ms Sheerin raised a point of order.
“The Minister accused me of calling him a liar, can I put it on the record that I did not call him a liar,” she said.
Mr Swann said if he had misheard Ms Sheerin he would apologise but added: “I think I saw what the member said.” – PA