Government to intervene in Northern Ireland abortion stand-off

David Young, PA
·2-min read

The Government will take legislative action later in a bid to end a stand-off over commissioning abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis is set to lay a regulation at Westminster giving him the power to direct the region’s health department to commission the services.

He is expected to outline his position in a written ministerial statement on Tuesday afternoon.

The move comes ahead of a legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission over the ongoing failure to make terminations widely available in the region.

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Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann has insisted he cannot act without wider Executive approval (Liam McBurney/PA)

Abortion laws in the region were liberalised by MPs at Westminster in 2019 at a time when powersharing was collapsed.

New regulations came into operation a year ago and, while individual health trusts are offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services on a region-wide basis.

In the absence of fully commissioned services being available, women from Northern Ireland are still travelling to England to access abortions.

Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann has maintained he cannot 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 an issue to secure Executive approval, both of the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, must agree to it.

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DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned the Government that any intervention would have ‘serious consequences’ for devolution (Liam McBurney/PA)

The anti-abortion DUP has to date blocked Mr Swann’s proposal.

The DUP has warned that an intervention by the Government would represent a breach of the devolution settlement for Northern Ireland and have “serious consequences” for the future operation of Stormont.

There will be no parliamentary debate on the Government move on Tuesday.

MPs and Lords will instead convene to decide whether to approve the intervention in the coming weeks.