DUP will ‘vigorously oppose’ fresh Westminster intervention over abortion laws

Rebecca Black, PA
·3-min read

The DUP will “vigorously oppose” any further legislative action to see new abortion laws implemented in the region, an MP has warned.

The law was liberalised last year to allow terminations in Northern Ireland following action taken at Westminster.

However, while individual health trusts have set up temporary early medical abortion pathways, Northern Ireland-wide services have not yet been commissioned by the Department of Health.

The Andrew Marr Show
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

The region’s Health Minister Robin Swann previously said the issue is controversial and therefore he cannot act alone and requires agreement by the Executive.

Brandon Lewis intends to lay new regulations in Parliament next week to allow him to direct Mr Swann’s department to commission the services, the Guardian has reported.

Mr Lewis was reportedly prompted by concerns many women are still travelling to Great Britain to access services.

A UK Government spokesperson confirmed there is disappointment that full abortion services have not yet been commissioned, adding “further legislative action at Westminster” is being considered.

The DUP’s Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned that any move to legislate over the Stormont Executive would “raise serious questions”.

Mr Donaldson said he and DUP leader Arlene Foster met Mr Lewis over the matter on Thursday.

“Abortion is a devolved matter,” he said.

“Any move by an NIO minister to legislate over the head of the Northern Ireland Executive would raise serious questions about when and in what areas the Government can make interventions in a devolved administration.

“The DUP would warn the Northern Ireland Office against legislating on a matter which is wholly devolved and we will vigorously oppose such steps.”

Mr Donaldson said the new abortion laws were “foisted” on Northern Ireland during the collapse of the power sharing institutions, and claims they would not have been voted through by MLAs.

“Our party leader Arlene Foster and myself had an urgent meeting today with the Secretary of State,” he said.

“We underscored that this matter rests with the Health Minister Robin Swann and the Government should leave it with the devolved structures to make such decisions.

“We will continue to pursue this matter with the Government in the coming days.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein MLA Emma Sheerin has called on Mr Swann as Health Minister to commission full abortion services.

“The legislation is in place and needs to be implemented,” she said.

“There should be no further delays in the commissioning of modern health care services.”

A Department of Health spokesperson responded saying: “The Health Minister has maintained that the commissioning of abortion services is controversial, cross cutting and outwith the Programme for Government.

“He does not believe that a ministerial decision to commission and fund abortion services would be defensible in court in the absence of Executive approval.”

Abortion is an issue which sharply divides opinion in Northern Ireland with strong pro-choice and anti-abortion lobbies.

Northern Ireland abortion laws demonstration
Protesters stage a silent demonstration at Stormont against the liberalisation of abortion laws in Northern Ireland (Brian Lawless/PA)

On Monday a motion by DUP MLA Paul Givan seeking to restrict abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities passed its second reading.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill accused the DUP of attempting to “roll back abortion progress” but her MLAs abstained on that vote.

Separately, the party has announced its intention to bring a paper to the Executive calling for Mr Swann to commission full abortion services.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We remain disappointed that the Department of Health and Northern Ireland Executive have failed to commission full abortion services, following the change to the law last March.

“We are continuing to monitor the situation closely, including considering further legislative action at Westminster, given the nature of the legal duties on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in this context.”