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N Ireland bill legalizing abortion, gay marriage faces challenges in House of Lords

The House of Lords (Getty)

As the British parliament continues to consider a bill on Northern Ireland including amendments that would legalize abortion and same-sex marriage, a peeress from the region has warned the amendments are “not workable.”

The bill and its amendments will take effect only if the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended the past two years due to a dispute between the two major governing parties, is not functional by October 21.

Last week the House of Commons voted to add amendments legalizing same-sex marriage and liberalizing abortion provision in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which is designed to keep the region running in the absence of a functioning devolved government.

Thence the bill passed to the House of Lords, where it is now at the committee stage. It will remain in the upper house until July 17, when it will return to the House of Commons for amendments.

Nuala O’Loan, Baroness O’Loan, a member of the House of Lords from Northern Ireland, told BBC News NI on July 15 that the amendments cannot work, and that it is wrong of the British government to “push it through in a situation where the people of Northern Ireland had no say.”

O’Loan said members of parliament had “hijacked” the Northern Ireland bill: “This was a bill that started its life in Parliament with the intention of allowing the secretary of state to postpone the date for an election… to enable the talks which are currently under way to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly to proceed. What happened was it was hijacked in the Commons… various amendments were put in and these should not have been accepted because they were outside the purpose of the bill.”

She added that the amendments don’t work, because “it says the secretary of state must make regulations – the secretary of state can’t.”

Introducing the bill into the House of Lords on July 10, Ian Duncan, Baron Duncan of Springbank, said that “crucially, the amendments as drafted do not function properly and so do not enable the government to deliver on the instruction of Parliament.”

Similarly, John Larkin, attorney general for Northern Ireland, said the abortion amendment was not “drafted clearly or consistently” with human rights laws.

O’Loan noted that “100% of the Northern Ireland MPs who have taken their seat in Westminster voted against this.”

A letter opposing the bill was distributed at Masses held in Northern Ireland on July 14. Authored by O’Loan and Robin Eames, who was the Church of Ireland’s Archbishop of Armagh from 1986 to 2006, it focused on the bill’s threat to devolution.

Addressed to British prime minister Theresa May, it said the overwhelming vote in the Commons “treats the people of Northern Ireland with contempt,” especially it was “voted for only by MPs who do not represent constituencies in Northern Ireland.”

May has said in the past that abortion should be a devolved issue for Northern Ireland.

The letter stated, “The imposition of this legislation on Northern Ireland in its current form … would represent a massive democratic deficit.”

It adds that the bill “has the capacity to undermine the delicate political calibration between Northern Ireland and Westminster and to cause significant damage to attempts to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

O’Loan and Eames called on the government to withdraw the  Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill.

Failing this, they called for an amendment they introduced which would require public consultation and the support of a majority of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly before any change in the region’s legislation.

Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.

Both amendments to the were introduced by Labour MPs.

Stella Creasy, who represents a London constituency and who introduced the abortion amendment, has said the Commons “spoke clearly to say we wouldn’t accept the rights of women in Northern Ireland being ignored any longer”.

Earlier this year Creasy intended to propose an amendment to a draft Domestic Abuse Bill that would give the British parliament jurisdiction over abortion laws throughout the United Kingdom. However, the bill’s scope was restricted to England and Wales by the Conservative government.

She also introduced an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 to repeal Northern Irish law on abortion and gay marriage, which was defeated.

Ahead of last week’s vote in the Commons, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh registered his deep concern that the bill would be hijacked “to remove existing legal protection for unborn babies and to ‘fast track’ the legalisation of abortion on demand in Northern Ireland. How tragic it is for humanity that some legislators would ‘fast track’ the ending of the lives of the most defenceless in our society.”

Abortion and same-sex marriage are both legal in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Elective abortion is legal in the rest of the United Kingdom up to 24 weeks, while currently it is legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life is at risk or if there is risk of permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.

In June 2018, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission challenged the region’s abortion laws in the UK Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court concluded that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws violated human rights law by banning abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, and incest, it threw out the case saying it had not been brought forward by a person who had been wrongfully harmed by the law.