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It's Theresa May's DUP deal that's stopping Northern Irish women getting abortion rights - not devolution

3 min read

It is Theresa May's reliance on the DUP which is stopping women from getting access to abortions in Northern Ireland, rather than the intricacies of devolution, argues Stella Creasy.

Research shows us that this week alone, around twenty eight women will be forced to travel from Northern Ireland to England for abortions. This journey to access basic healthcare rights is something our own human rights courts have called ‘cruel and inhuman’. It’s caused by the imposition of a law from Westminster, written over 150 years ago, that makes having an abortion there illegal. Thus if you are raped in Northern Ireland and become pregnant as a result and seek a termination, you could face a longer prison sentence than your attacker.

It’s not just women in Northern Ireland whose reproductive rights are denied. Same sex marriage is also not legal there - eighty four couples in Northern Ireland had a civil partnership in 2016, denied the equal marriage rights of their heterosexual counterparts. Laws stuck in the past- again written in Westminster - tell LGBT people their relationship should not be seen nor heard. Conventionally people look to their politicians for redress- but Northern Ireland has not had a functioning Assembly, on which devolution rests, since March 2017.

Twenty years ago politicians in both Ireland and the UK swore to protect the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Everyday these issues are ignored, even when the courts tell us that they should be addressed, is a day we are breaking that promise. It is also a promise the people of Northern Ireland want to see enacted. Opinion polls consistently show support for reform of the laws around both same sex marriage and abortion, with the recent referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland where same sex marriage is also legal further strengthening the calls for change.

The Government protests it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to address these matters. At the same time today it is rushing emergency legislation, The Northern Ireland Bill, through parliament in order to give civil servants and the Secretary of State the powers to run departments there because the Assembly isn’t functioning. In response, Conor McGinn and I have tabled an amendment to hold the Secretary of State accountable for action on these issues and the impact this has on the day to day lives of the people of Northern Ireland. That over 110 MPs from across Parliament have co-signed shows they agree devolution should not equal denial of rights in such democratic dysfunction. 

With colleagues supporting this including those on the Government benches, it is clear it is the delicate balance of power in Westminster and the role of the DUP in maintaining that which stands in the way of resolution, not the delicacies of devolution. Repealing UK based legislation such as section 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 which criminalises abortion, and Section 13(e) of the Matrimonial Clause (NI) Order 1978, would not create new laws for Northern Ireland. It would however take away the impediment to Northern Ireland getting on and writing its own rules for both matters. Voting for this today and to hold the Secretary of State account as to why this isn’t happening would send a clear message that we will advocate for human rights, not just internationally but on our own doorstep. For so many in Northern Ireland who have waited too long for redress, change cannot come a moment too soon. 

Stella Creasy is the Labour MP for Walthamstow

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