Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has used new powers to direct ministers in Belfast to take the steps necessary to roll out abortion services across the region, with a deadline of the end of March 2022.
Northern Ireland’s once strict abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution at Stormont had collapsed.
However, while individual health trusts are currently offering services for early medical abortions on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission full services due to an ongoing impasse within the devolved administration.
At the heart of this matter are the women and girls in Northern Ireland, who have been, and continue to be, denied the same reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK
The limitations on service provision saw many women continuing to travel to England to access abortions during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann has maintained he cannot centrally commission 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 a proposal to secure Executive approval, or even get on the agenda for a ministerial discussion, the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, must both agree to it.
The anti-abortion DUP has to date blocked consideration of the commissioning issue at the Executive.
In March, the Government intervened to hand Mr Lewis new powers to direct the region’s Department of Health to commission the services.
On Thursday, he formally took that step, directing action from the Department of Health, Mr Swann, the Health and Social Care Board, First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.
The direction to the first and deputy first ministers made clear they had to put the matter on the Executive agenda for consideration when Mr Swann brings forward a proposed plan to commission the services.
“This ongoing stalemate leaves me no choice but to issue a direction,” said Mr Lewis.
“I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access the healthcare as set out in the 2020 Regulations.”
Mr Lewis noted that abortion was a sensitive issue.
“I acknowledge and respect the deeply-held views that individuals hold on this issue,” he said.
“However, it is the clear will of Parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld.”
Mr Lewis explained why the Government had created the new powers in relation to directing the commission of services.
He said: “We took this important step because a year after the 2020 Regulations were made, women and girls in Northern Ireland are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland in all the circumstances allowed by the Regulations we made on March 31 2020.
“This remains the case today.”
Mr Lewis also directed that immediate support be provided to sustain the interim services currently being offered by the health trusts in Northern Ireland.
He warned that those services were “at risk of collapse”.
“Though I recognise the huge strain that Covid-19 has placed on healthcare in Northern Ireland, I remain extremely disappointed that full commissioning proposals have not yet been brought forward by the Department of Health and that the Executive has not an opportunity to discuss them,” he said.
Mr Lewis said it was for the Executive to find the funding necessary for the services from within the annual Treasury block grant or its own coffers.
“At the heart of this matter are the women and girls in Northern Ireland, who have been, and continue to be, denied the same reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK,” he said.
“Parliament determined that this should be corrected and by exercising the power to direct, we will ensure that it is.”