News Analysis

Why MPs are rushing to impose abortion on Northern Ireland


It would be an understatement to say that this Parliament is among the least impressive in British history. It will be remembered most notably for its debacle over Brexit, in which it gravely damaged its own reputation and that of the country by failing even to agree on a series of indicative votes. The major parties were so out of touch with public opinion that they were subsequently hammered during the European elections. Yet they still seem clueless about where they went, and are still going, wrong.

At the heart of the problem are ugly ideologies with which both the Conservative and Labour parties are riven. There are some ideologies particular to each: anti-Semitism within the Labour movement being a prime example. Yet there are others in which sadly they are united, none more so than the anti-marriage and anti-life dogma which so many MPs find mesmerising.

A clear demonstration of this came last week when Labour MP Stella Creasy (pictured), one of the most determined pro-abortion activists in the Commons, jumped on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill with an amendment to decriminalise abortion within the Province.

Conor McGinn, another Labour MP, also proposed that if rule from Stormont, where power-sharing has been suspended for the past 18 months, is not restored by October 21, then Parliament will also introduce same-sex marriage, with the proviso that a future assembly could overturn or amend the law.

The amended Bill was fast-tracked with astonishing haste through its Commons stages, in a process described as “constitutionally unacceptable” by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. An outcry was inevitable, not only because abortion is such a controversial matter but also because every MP for a Northern Irish constituency opposes its introduction.

They have the support of the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), who voted to reject abortion in 2016, as well as about 70 per cent of the Northern Irish population, according to polls. The fact that abortion is a devolved issue is in part a recognition of the strength of feeling there against the practice.

Ms Creasy’s attempt to impose abortion on Northern Ireland was surely in opposition to the democratic rights of the Province, whose elected representatives had made their views clear.

Yet it would appear that when it comes to burning incense before the new idols, democracy counts for little within the Conservative as well as Labour ranks.

It took the Government just days to decide that Ms Creasy’s amendment was too limited, and that it would go further by drafting its own secondary legislation to sidestep devolution and to introduce abortion into Northern Ireland.

For the Tories, this represents an abrupt change of policy, from being neutral on abortion in Northern Ireland to being actively in favour of change. A ComRes poll found, however, that most Tory councillors and grassroots activists disagreed with the new policy.

This week, the Bill arrived at the House of Lords, where peers planned to bring forward a number of amendments designed to block attempts to change abortion law in Northern Ireland from Westminster. They included a motion from Lord Morrow, a Democratic Unionist, calling for the abortion clause to be removed from the Bill.

There was also a planned amendment from Baroness O’Loan requiring consultation with the voters of Northern Ireland, and a majority among MLAs to approve any legislation before it can be laid before Parliament in Westminster.

A letter written by the crossbench peer to outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May set out her concerns and by Tuesday afternoon it had been signed by around 15,000 people.

Baroness O’Loan later said she had been “shocked” by the Government abandoning its stance of neutrality when no sitting Northern Irish MP supported the change, and none of those supporting Ms Creasy’s amendment held a seat in the Province.

Furthermore, she said, the hijacking of the Bill by pro-abortion activists in Westminster threatened to imperil attempts to restore power-sharing from Stormont, “something the people of Northern Ireland are crying out for”. “The people of Northern Ireland will not stand for this,” she said.

It is a wonder just how long people elsewhere in the UK will stand for it either. But it is obvious that the problem is acute when a respected Conservative like Jeremy Hunt, while debating on television with Boris Johnson, said that he believed abortion should be imposed on Northern Ireland. Can he really believe that this will endear him to the Tory rank and file?

Mr Johnson showed himself to be more astute by asserting that it was a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to decide.

The addiction to the new ideologies in Westminster is something a general election might fix – or make worse. As for this Parliament, it was a blessing that the Brexit fiasco occupied so much parliamentary energy that little time remained for activists to push such causes. No wonder they are now in such a rush.