Ford warns of abortion law 'limbo' as Northern Ireland MLAs vote against amendment
Northern Ireland's abortion laws are likely to remain "in limbo" for some time, Justice Minister David Ford has warned.
Mr Ford also branded "bizarre" the DUP's call for a working group to examine the issues under the Health Minister, when the issue is primarily a criminal justice one.
"(It is) the responsibility of the Department of Justice and me as minister, not the responsibility of the Department of Health," the Alliance Party leader insisted.
The row over abortion laws raged on after an Assembly vote went against legalising terminations in limited circumstances.
The debate is likely to form a key issue in the run-up to the May Stormont election, with the Assembly having to deal with it in its following term.
After a sombre and at times impassioned but dignified debate, an amendment brought by Alliance MLAs Trevor Lunn and Stewart Dickson allowing women whose babies have no chance of survival to access abortions was defeated by 59 votes to 40.
The DUP, SDLP and most Ulster Unionists voted it down, while Sinn Fein, three Ulster Unionists and all Alliance MLAs except Kieran McCarthy were in support. Mr McCarthy abstained.
Mr Ford, who brought forward proposals to the Executive in June last year, said it appeared some parties were content to leave the issue in limbo.
"It was any excuse to avoid taking a decision so they can fudge the issue," he added. "We will wait and see what happens to the DUP's supposed working group."
The DUP, however, argued for more detailed consideration and claimed Mr Ford's Justice Bill was not intended to tackle the issue of abortion. They were supported in this stance by the SDLP.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt claimed the working group amounted to a device constructed by the DUP to postpone a decision until after the election, which he described as "cruel" and "Dickensian". He said: "This is Bleak House we're in...in the Chancery courts waiting day after day for a decision that never comes."
But he was challenged by First Minister Arlene Foster for equating the committee to a petition of concern, which would also have blocked the amendment. DUP Junior Minister Emma Pengelly also defended the working group as sensible. "The way forward that we are proposing is a compassionate one that will leave all of us in a much better and informed position to chart a loving and kind way forward," she said.
However, Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane also hit out at the DUP. "What about the plight of women in the here and now?" she asked. What about the women who are pregnant as the result of rape, or women who are faced with fatal foetal abnormalities?"
SDLP former deputy leader Dolores Kelly, for once allied to TUV leader Jim Allister, voiced doubt that doctors could accurately predict that an unborn child had no chance of survival.
Mr Dickson said he would bring forward a Private Member's Bill if re-elected to the Assembly in May, and added: "It was disingenuous for people to claim proper consultation was needed when the Department of Justice did this extensively in 2014."
Chief human rights commissioner Les Allamby also criticised the vote. "Our elected representatives have neglected the fundamental rights of vulnerable women and girls facing the most difficult circumstances," he said.
But Callum Webster of the Christian Institute lobby group argued: "There has been a media campaign to undermine the legal protections afforded to our unborn children, but thankfully politicians have resisted that co-ordinated pressure."