Ministers unlikely to raise NI abortion law with British counterparts

Irish and UK politicians call on British government to reform North’s abortion laws

Former chairperson of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Senator Catherine Noone is part of the group. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Former chairperson of the Joint Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Senator Catherine Noone is part of the group. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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The Government is unlikely to raise the North’s abortion laws at this week’s Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) meeting with British ministers in London.

This is despite a call from more than 170 Irish and British politicians for the British Government to intervene to relax the North’s strict anti-abortion regime.

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan are scheduled to meet their British counterparts in London this week for the first meeting of the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference in 10 years.

The IGC, established by 1998 Belfast Agreement, provides for input into the affairs of the North by the Irish Government.

However, Department of Foreign Affairs sources say that abortion does not feature in early drafts of the agenda for the meeting and is unlikely to part of the discussions.

Abortion laws in Northern Ireland are much more restrictive than the rest of the UK, as the 1967 Act which made legal abortion widely available in Britain has never been extended to the North.

With the power sharing institutions in Stormont suspended since Sinn Féin pulled out of the executive early last year, the Irish Government has been seeking a meeting of the IGC for months.

The Belfast Agreement provides for meetings of the conference on non-devolved Northern Ireland issues. Under its terms the Irish government can put forward views and proposals. It also deals with “all-island and cross-Border co-operation on non-devolved issues”.

British Labour MP Stella Creasy organised the letter. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and her deputy Michelle O’Neill were among 173 politicians to sign it and it was published in the Sunday Times.

It urged the end of treating British and Irish citizens living in the North as “second class citizens”.

Also putting their names to the letter were Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone and Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers, as well as representatives of the Labour Party, the Social Democrats and People Before Profit.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party and Green Party MLA Steven Agnew also signed.

However, Lord Ken Maginnis, an Independent Ulster Unionist and former Ulster Unionist MP, said he was “horrified” to find his name “improperly included”.

He said: “Rather than consent to my name being added as a signatory to what I deemed to be a constitutionally misconceived letter, I made it very plain to Ms Creasy that I wanted nothing to do with it.”

Thirteen abortions, within the current law, took place in Northern Ireland hospitals in 2016/17.

However, it is estimated that every day two or three women will travel to Britain for an abortion; with many others risking prosecution for self-administering abortifacients (abortion pills) at home; or they are compelled to carry pregnancies to full term.

Since June 2017 women from Northern Ireland have been able to access free abortions in England, however, many women, including those in coercive relationships and with caring responsibilities, cannot travel.

New statistics from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service indicates 342 women made the journey between March and May this year.

The DUP, which keeps Theresa May’s Conservative government in power through a confidence and supply agreement at Westminster, says it objects to the idea of legislation being imposed “over our heads”.

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