Astonishment as legal chief wades into abortion row
A justice committee member has insisted the body has no power to investigate Northern Ireland’s first private abortion clinic — despite being asked to do so by the Attorney General.
Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney said that the only body with the power to launch an investigation is the PSNI.
The Marie Stopes clinic opened its doors for the first time yesterday in Belfast city centre, offering a range of sexual health and reproductive medicine services, including terminations, screening for sexually transmitted infections and contraception advice.
Up to 300 protesters gathered outside the facility to demonstrate their anger and concern over the arrival of the organisation in Northern Ireland.
It also emerged yesterday that Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin, who is the chief legal adviser to the Stormont executive, had written to the Justice Committee inviting them to investigate the operations of the Belfast clinic.
Mr Larkin said that while in his official capacity he cannot intervene, in his non-statutory role as guardian of the rule of law he can become engaged.
He also said he would be happy to give every possible assistance including acting as counsel and questioning witnesses on their behalf.
However, Mr McCartney said he was uncertain if Mr Larkin’s offer to act as counsel and question witnesses on the committee’s behalf as part of an investigation would be appropriate.
“The way the Attorney General’s letter was presented was as if we could conduct an investigation.
“The committee has the power to conduct an inquiry but the PSNI is the proper authority to carry out an investigation.
He added: “The Attorney General has also offered himself as counsel and cross-examiner. We need to find out if that is appropriate or if it is allowed... we cannot be prejudicial. Marie Stopes have stated very clearly that they are going to act within the legislation.”
Last night First Minister Peter Robinson defended the Attorney General’s involvement.
He said: “I think John has indicated he wouldn’t be doing it in an official capacity. I don’t think we can really curtail people who are doing something outside their official duties.”
“As long as there is no conflict that doesn’t become a problem but if there comes a conflict for someone who is acting as the legal adviser to the Executive in helping a committee, then there would be a problem.”
Mr Larkin also defended his decision to enter the abortion debate, despite a prominent legal expert saying that the Attorney General of England and Wales would never interfere in such a major public issue.
However, the Attorney General said that the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic “raises important issues concerning the rule of law in Northern Ireland”.
He added that as “guardian of the rule of law”, he is ensuring that the law in this area is complied with.
But Tracey McNeill, the UK director of Marie Stopes, said that her understanding of the law is that they can only be investigated if they carry out an illegal act, and they have “no intention of doing that”.
Ms McNeill added: “People have to remember, the doctors and nurses are from Northern Ireland and there are suggestions they are going to break the law. They are not going to do that.
“They live in Northern Ireland. Why would they do anything unlawful?”
BBC legal expert Joshua Rozenberg questioned Mr Larkin’s decision to wade into the abortion issue and offer his assistance to a committee in an investigation.
Mr Rozenburg said that acting as counsel for the committee and questioning witnesses on behalf of the committee would not happen in England and Wales as the Attorney General “would take the view that he needs to stand back from this sort of thing, stand aloof ... because if this matter were to come to court ... then he would like to say that he hadn’t been involved.”
Justice Committee chairman Paul Givan, however, said that he would be happy to utilise the Attorney General’s assistance if the Assembly agreed that it was appropriate.