Karen Bradley has said she personally backs abortion reform – but the Northern Ireland Assembly must be restored to consider the issue to avoid disenfranchising 1.8 million people.
The Northern Ireland Secretary confirmed if abortion came before the House of Commons then a free vote would take place, as it is a “matter of conscience”.
But Ms Bradley insisted her focus is on restoring the devolved assembly at Stormont, amid intense cross-party calls to liberalise Northern Ireland’s abortion laws following the landslide pro-choice referendum victory in Ireland last month.
Fellow Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt went further, saying MPs had sent a message to Northern Ireland’s politicians that if they do not act on the issue, “we will”.
Labour’s Stella Creasy, leading an emergency Commons debate, said the proposal to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861 – which criminalises abortion – would respect devolution and not change the abortion time limit or the role of medics.
The Walthamstow MP argued she was not proposing any particular law but repealing existing UK legislation that would require Northern Ireland to act.
Ms Creasy urged ministers to commit to allowing the Commons to express its opinion on the issue within the next 150 days.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier hit out at the DUP after it insisted Westminster should not meddle with Northern Ireland’s strict abortion regime, insisting the UK Parliament has a responsibility to respect human rights standards.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has said that abortion is a devolved matter and should only be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is currently suspended.
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill also welcomed the Westminster debate, describing it as a “first step” on the road to abortion reform in Northern Ireland.
Speaking in the Commons for the Government, Ms Bradley said she personally wanted to see reform, but said it was “a matter for the people of Northern Ireland”.
She said: “This is a matter of conscience: a free vote on this issue in this House would be afforded if the matter of abortion comes before the House again, and the same applies in Northern Ireland.
“That is why the Government, like its predecessors, believes that the best forum to debate and resolve these and many other matters is a locally elected Northern Ireland Assembly, so the Government’s priority remains to urgently re-establish strong, inclusive, devolved government at the earliest opportunity.”
Concluding her remarks, Ms Bradley stressed the need for the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider the issue and listen to views of the people.
She added: “Or, as (Tory MP Maria Miller) suggested, we are in danger of disenfranchising 1.8 million citizens of the United Kingdom.”
Ms Bradley added: “The Prime Minister has been clear in her support for women’s rights in respect of access to safe abortions and she welcomed the referendum result in Ireland.
“We are in agreement that the best way forward for Northern Ireland is through locally accountable politicians making important decisions through devolution, and for the people of Northern Ireland to have their say on the devolved issues which affect their daily lives.”
DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today because the Abortion Act 1967 was not accepted.
“I am proud of that pro-life position, I am proud of the fact that there are so many people alive in Northern Ireland today because we have a law that respects the rights of both women and of the unborn child and we will maintain that position.”
He said the law in Northern Ireland had been shown to reduce the number of abortions in the jurisdiction, and said: “For that reason I am very thoughtful about any change in the law in Northern Ireland.”
Sir Jeffrey added: “There are strong voices on both sides of this debate, this is a devolved issue – it should be left to the people of Northern Ireland to decide.”
Labour's position has always been that abortion rights should be extended, without fear or favour, across the whole of the UK.Jeremy Corbyn
Speaking ahead of the debate, Mr Corbyn said: “I would say very politely to Arlene Foster: you were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, maybe you should play your part in ensuring that Assembly functions and we get a devolved administration working in Northern Ireland.
“In the absence of it, then clearly the UK Parliament has responsibility to adhere to human rights standards, and there is a Supreme Court decision coming on Thursday.
“Labour’s position has always been that abortion rights should be extended, without fear or favour, across the whole of the UK.”
For Sinn Fein, Mrs O’Neill said she wanted repeal of the relevant sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act to ensure abortion was no longer treated as a criminal offence in the region.
She called for the UK and Irish governments to then come together under a peace process construct called the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to discuss how to change the laws on terminations in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein supports abortion in extreme cases, like foetal abnormality.
However, the republican party is due to consider whether to change to support unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks at its ard fheis (party conference) later this month.