Brandon Lewis’ new NI abortion powers pose a major threat to the union
Intervention from Westminster on this devolved matter is unwelcome by many in Northern Ireland and sets a dangerous precedent for devolution.
It is over a year since one of Europe’s most radical abortion regimes were imposed on Northern Ireland. Now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has given himself sweeping new powers to enable him to force an expansion of abortion access on Northern Ireland.
This is despite 100% of all Northern Ireland MPs who took their seats in Parliament having voted against these powers. Moreover, this was introduced to address a time when there was no functioning Assembly.
Overriding a fully functioning and democratic Executive and Assembly is an extreme overreach of power and sets a dangerous precedent for devolution and, therefore, the union.
Given this, all matters related to abortion policy should be left to MLAs - those who represent the people of Northern Ireland on this devolved matter - the majority of whom are pro-life and do not want a radical abortion regime imposed against their will.
Indeed, polling in 2020 showed that only 5% of voters supported introducing abortion through to 24 weeks, which the Conservative government introduced in Northern Ireland and is now taking radical steps to further impose. Such overwhelming opposition makes it clear that intervention from Westminster on this devolved matter is unwelcome by many in Northern Ireland.
Devolved powers can run their own governments until they do something that Westminster disagrees with
On 2 June 2020 a majority of MLAs opposed the first set of abortion regulations Westminster imposed, which discriminated against those with non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome. Just last month, the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill to provide protections for unborn children with non-fatal disabilities passed its second stage at the Northern Ireland Assembly with a majority of 48 to 12 votes.
The fact that Westminster continues to dishonour the devolution settlement and the clear wishes of elected officials from Northern Ireland sends a message to all our devolved governments that they are weak and can be overtaken by Westminster’s whims. It appears the United Kingdom is a union bound by a devolution settlement in name only; devolved powers can run their own governments until they do something that Westminster disagrees with.
Ironically, the Prime Minister’s wish in 2019 that “the government of Northern Ireland can be resumed as soon as possible so this issue [abortion] can be decided in the forum where it properly belongs, in other words at Stormont” starkly contradicts the present situation under his premiership. Stormont has now been functioning for over 15 months, yet the Conservative government still granted the Northern Ireland Secretary new powers to enforce legislation left over from the absence of a functioning Assembly.
Imagine if Northern Ireland imposed an unwanted piece of legislation on England, against the will and steadfast opposition of the majority of English MPs. Constituents across England and their parliamentary representatives would be rightly outraged. That the UK government thinks such a move is acceptable in Northern Ireland shows complete disrespect for the people of Northern Ireland.
The claim that the Secretary of State’s new powers are necessary to ensure Northern Ireland’s compliance with the UN CEDAW Committee’s recommendations on abortion in Northern Ireland does not stand. The Secretary of State does have powers to direct Ministers and civil servants in relation to international obligations, but the government acknowledges in the explanatory memorandum to the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 that the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW Report “are not binding and do not constitute international obligations.”
The Northern Ireland Secretary intends to use his new powers to make abortion “become embedded into the health and social care system in Northern Ireland in the long term.” His undemocratic vision will have lasting effects on the population of Northern Ireland. Already, in the year since the abortion regulations were introduced, 1,345 lives have been lost to abortion in Northern Ireland. That is a huge increase on 2019-20, yet in his letter to parliamentarians the Secretary ominously stated, “this is not enough”.
The new regulation also allows the Secretary of State broad powers to direct actions in the field of education in Northern Ireland, how the role of women in society is promoted, and give sweeping powers to direct the actions of the Regional Health and Social Care Board and the Regional Agency for Public Health and Social Well-being. As noted in a recent PoliticsHome article by Dr Laura McLaughlin, “history has been made.” Indeed, and at what cost?
Imposing an unwanted regime on any part of the UK in breach of the devolution settlement fractures an increasingly fragile union. Stormont is up and running and should be left to govern its own affairs as established in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Carla Lockhart is the Democratic Unionist Party MP for Upper Bann.