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Belfast council may back calls for abortion in Northern Ireland to be decriminalised

By Suzanne Breen

Belfast City Council looks on course to pass a resolution tonight calling for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.

The motion proposed by an Alliance councillor and seconded by Sinn Fein will be opposed by the DUP and independent nationalist councillors.

The SDLP's position on the resolution last night remained unclear, with two PUP councillors supporting it and the Ulster Unionists likely to vote according to individual conscience.

The motion is being proposed by Alliance's Kate Nicholl and seconded by Sinn Fein's Mary Ellen Campbell.

It notes the increasing number of women accessing abortion pills online which leaves them vulnerable to prosecution.

It says there is an impact on healthcare professionals who, under the law, may have a duty to provide details to the PSNI.

"Therefore, if a woman requires medical assistance after accessing these pills, the threat of prosecution and life in prison is likely to act as a real deterrent, thus potentially having a detrimental impact on her health," the motion states.

"Accordingly, the council believes that abortion should be regulated like any other medical care and not by criminal law... A woman who has an abortion is not a criminal, nor are healthcare professionals who care for them, and the law should not treat them as such."

Sinn Fein and Alliance hold 27 of the 60 seats in City Hall. With People Before Profit's Matt Collins supporting the motion, along with two PUP councillors and the third abstaining, it looks likely to be passed.

However, turnout at the meeting, which was rescheduled from Thursday due to the snow, could be key and the motion's opponents still hope to derail it.

Green councillor Georgina Milne, who said she strongly supported the resolution, is unable to attend. The SDLP and UUP will propose amendments.

While abortion is a matter of conscience and not policy for Alliance, its eight representatives are likely to support the motion.

Group leader Michael Long said: "Our Balmoral councillor Kate Nicholl is proposing this motion. With abortion medication available on the internet, she feels it's important the council discusses and takes a position on this new issue."

DUP councillor Graham Craig claimed the resolution was "divisive and rancorous". He said: "The DUP is a pro-life party and this motion is quite clearly contrary to that position. This motion proves that Alliance and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked in City Hall. Alliance in Belfast has been taken over by a hard-left cabal."

PUP councillor Julie-Anne Corr Johnston said: "The PUP unreservedly and unapologetically trusts women. Abortion is a conscience issue for our members so myself and Billy Hutchinson will support the motion and Dr John Kyle will abstain.

"The council doesn't have legislative powers to decriminalise abortion but it can act as a lobbyist to those who do. And in the Assembly's absence it is the only platform for debate."

UUP group leader David Browne said his party may propose an amendment and its six councillors would likely vote according to conscience.

People Before Profit councillor Mr Collins said: "The criminalisation of women who procure the abortion pill is shocking and disproportionately impacts on those living in poverty. As a pro-choice party, we wish to see free, safe and legal access to abortion across this island."

Independent unionist councillor Jolene Bunting said she would oppose the motion.

Independent councillor Declan Boyle, one of three SDLP City Hall members who left the party following an internal dispute over abortion, said he was strongly against the resolution.

"I don't believe in criminalising women but both lives matter and this motion removes legal protection for the unborn," he said. "There are some hard cases but this motion is about abortion on demand."

When asked how the four SDLP councillors would vote, group leader Tim Attwood said the SDLP was a pro-life party and also believed in showing compassion. "We are working towards an amendment that we can support and we are in conversation with other parties in relation to that," he said.

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