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Newton Emerson: The awkward truth about London’s intervention on NI’s abortion issue

Order to Stormont is the most assertive override of devolution since St Andrews Agreement

A momentous event took place in Northern Ireland last Friday, followed by an awkward silence. Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Secretary, formally commissioned abortion services by giving a direct order to Stormont’s Department of Health.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which remains opposed to abortion, condemned this as a breach of devolution and punishment for its boycott of Stormont. However, few unionist voters have any problem with British government intervention and most support the liberalisation of abortion.

It was the Minister of Health and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MLA Robin Swann who refused to commission abortion services during the past three years of devolution, ignoring repeated warnings from the Northern Ireland Office. But that conflicts with the UUP’s liberal image, so the party has said nothing.

Nor have other parties said anything about the UUP. Swann blocked abortion by declaring it “significant or controversial”, requiring the whole executive to vote on it. It did not want to do so, as nobody wants to recall.

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Alliance welcomed the commissioning of services, but not loudly enough to draw attention. Many of the party’s supporters would be surprised to learn it treats abortion as a conscience issue, letting its representatives take their own positions. Like the UUP, Alliance has to reconcile a liberal new image with a churchy old guard.

Sinn Féin also welcomed the commissioning of services and raised no objection to British intervention. The pro-life SDLP issued no statement. Liberalisation of abortion has become emblematic of modern Ireland, so nationalism cannot object to it.

Neither was there a statement from Dublin. Heaton-Harris has committed the most assertive override of devolution since the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. Where was the Irish government’s usual rebuke about the unacceptability of “British-only direct rule”?

Admittedly, it would be hard to condemn the British government for an intervention it had to be dragged into making.

During the last collapse of Stormont, 2017-2020, London desperately tried to avoid direct rule or involvement in devolved disputes. Legalisation of abortion was finally achieved by campaigners in Northern Ireland going to court and finding allies on the Labour backbenches. Stella Creasy, a north London MP, raised amendments to the emergency legislation the government needed to keep Stormont services functioning.

Devolution of human rights is a basic feature of the Belfast Agreement

Creasy soon found she had allies across the Commons, including Conservatives, whose motives ranged from progressive principles to straightforward dislike of the DUP. By late 2019 this forced the government into decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland. More legislation followed to give northern secretaries powers to intervene if Stormont failed to provide services.

There was unease even among the campaigners and MPs responsible for this success. They tried to fit it into the framework of the Belfast Agreement by insisting that while health is devolved, abortion is a rights issue and “human rights are not devolved” – an absurd slogan to hear from prominent rights groups. Devolution of human rights is a basic feature of the Belfast Agreement.

The 2019 decriminalisation is officially justified as complying with a UN convention against discrimination towards women. Treaties are not devolved and campaigners won a UK supreme court case requiring the government to uphold the convention in Northern Ireland.

No “limited and specific” jibe about international law is necessary to observe this was politically convenient. The UK signed the convention in 1981, yet that compelled no action in Northern Ireland for four decades.

It is a pity all this preciousness about devolution prevents the campaign’s importance from being fully acknowledged. An issue long considered irresolvable under Northern Ireland’s political system, then further complicated by a collapse of Stormont, was referred outside the system by activists and individual women and addressed through creative, cross-party Westminster politicking, running in parallel with legal action.

Rather than a special case, it is a model for similar logjams. Same-sex marriage was legalised in almost exactly the same way, three months after the decriminalisation of abortion. Irish language legislation, which received royal assent this Tuesday, was also delivered by Westminster. The unblocking of all three issues enabled the restoration of Stormont in 2020.

There appears to be no public disquiet about Westminster imposing fixes for devolved failure, even on highly contentious issues. It may help that the British government has acted reluctantly, under pressure from civic society in Northern Ireland. Its unilateral move on a Troubles amnesty has been a different matter. There has also been a neat balance, at least so far, in appeals to Westminster. Although it is an essentially unionist approach it has tended to be deployed against unionism, largely due to the conduct of the DUP.

The DUP is now blocking devolution. Even when the Northern Ireland Executive met, it was incapable of progress on issues such as integrated education or the reform of Stormont. Awkward though it may be to admit, London may be the best place to press for solutions.