Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster has told Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to “back off” over the implementation of abortion services in the region.
Earlier, Mr Lewis defended the UK Government’s introduction of new powers compelling Stormont to implement abortion laws.
He was challenged in the House of Commons by DUP MP Carla Lockhart, who claimed the new powers “represents a breach of the Belfast Agreement”.
But Mr Lewis said it is unacceptable that women and girls in Northern Ireland cannot access abortion services even though the law changed more than a year ago, and added that the UK Government’s decision to step in was not taken lightly.
Abortion laws in the region were liberalised by MPs at Westminster in 2019 at a time when powersharing was collapsed.
New regulations came into operation a year ago and, while individual health trusts are offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services on a region-wide basis.
In the absence of fully commissioned services being available, women from Northern Ireland are still travelling to England to access abortions.
This is a hugely complex, controversial, legally challenging issue for the Executive but let us be very clear, it is for the Executive, it is not for Brandon Lewis.Arlene Foster
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is set to take a legal challenge over the ongoing failure to make terminations widely available in the region.
Mrs Foster said abortions have happened in Northern Ireland over the last year.
“It’s quite wrong to say abortions haven’t been happening here, and of course we deeply regret that to be the case,” she said.
“This is a hugely complex, controversial, legally challenging issue for the Executive but let us be very clear, it is for the Executive, it is not for Brandon Lewis, and I think not only did my colleagues make that clear today in the House of Commons but a number of Brandon Lewis’s colleagues made that clear to him today.”
Mrs Foster said devolution is functioning and that Mr Lewis “should back off”.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill takes a different view on abortion to Mrs Foster.
She said Westminster should not have to legislate over something within Stormont’s competence.
“The Executive needs to take a decision on this issue, and my very clear view is that one year post the legislation being brought into effect, women are being failed access to modern compassionate healthcare,” she said.
“I believe that it’s been a failure that those services haven’t been commissioned.
“The health minister has stated that services are provided across each of the Trust areas however it’s not done from a central point from the Department of Health and that needs to change.”
Ms O’Neill said her Sinn Fein colleague Deirdre Hargey attempted to raise the issue at the meeting of the Executive, but it did not get on to the agenda.
“But I expect that after the discussion today, the health minister will have to bring back new proposals to the Executive and the Executive needs to take a decision on this issue, and it should be to commission services,” the Sinn Fein vice president added.