PM sends ‘congratulations’ to ROI women; but has no plans to support liberalisation of abortion law in NI

  • 29 May 2018
  • Posted in: Healthcare

Theresa May congratulated the #Together4yes campaign via a tweet on Sunday afternoon; paying tribute to ‘an impressive show of democracy which delivered a clear and unambiguous result’ – a landmark vote that set-in motion the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act 1983; liberalising abortion law in the Republic of Ireland.

However, the Prime Minister has shied-away from giving her support to campaigners looking to replicate a similar result in Northern Ireland. A spokesperson for the PM stated on Tuesday morning at the Downing Street lobby briefing: “It’s important to recognise that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to their own process, which is run by locally elected politicians. Our focus is restoring a democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland so that locally accountable politicians can make decisions on behalf of the public they represent.”

The Northern Ireland assembly and its ruling administration collapsed in January 2017 following a particularly bitter disagreement between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, over the mismanagement of a renewable energy scheme that cost taxpayers in excess of hundreds of millions of pounds. Despite 16 months passing since the break-down of a ruling executive, no progress has been made in restoring the assembly; despite elections taking place and repeated attempts by Westminster to engage both parties in restarting the negotiating process – which has achieved little more than highlighting additional fissures in the relationship between the two parties.    

May’s premiership was on the brink of collapse following the 2017 general election result in which the Conservatives suffered a net loss of 13 seats and surrendered their parliamentary majority. Theresa May salvaged her political life by striking a confidence and supply arrangement with Northern Ireland’s DUP, forming a minority government reliant on DUP votes in parliament to carry through her agenda.

Labour’s shadow equalities minister, Carolyn Harris, believes the Prime Minister’s reliance on the DUP is the motivation behind May’s refusal to back liberalisation of abortion law in Northern Ireland; which does not make exceptions for conceptions as a result of rape or incest. Harris said:

"It gives the message that Theresa May is far more interested in protecting her very fragile government than she is the women of Northern Ireland. It’s purely because of her fear of the DUP that she’s not prepared to act on this."

The debate around whether or not the PM can intervene in Irish law-making must also factor into account devolution of power; specifically, the Prime Minister cannot by-law interfere in the health policy of devolved nations. Health is a matter devolved to the Northern Irish assembly, human rights, however, are not a devolved matter and it is within the PM’s remit to legislate over UK-wide human rights issues. Carolyn Harris believes that the current legislature obstructing abortion in the North is a human right’s issue: “She can act. Health is devolved but human rights are not devolved, and you can’t get away from the fact that what’s happened to the women of Northern Ireland is a human rights issue. The problem she’s got is, many on her benches think that this is wrong. She needs to decide which party she is a member of – the DUP or the Conservatives.”

Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that his government will explore the possibility of allowing women in Northern Ireland to take advantage of the liberalised abortion policies in the Republic; citing how many women from north of the Irish border already travel south for avail of other healthcare services that are prohibited in Northern Ireland.