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Joint body is not the place to ruminate over devolved issues such as abortion law


Campaigners hold posters calling for Northern Ireland to liberalise its abortion laws

Campaigners hold posters calling for Northern Ireland to liberalise its abortion laws

AFP/Getty Images

Campaigners hold posters calling for Northern Ireland to liberalise its abortion laws

In recent days there has been considerable publicity for a letter signed by the Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy and other politicians from the UK and Republic calling on the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) to consider the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland.

The letter calls for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland and urges Her Majesty's Government to outline a timetable for repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, legislation which impacts on England and Wales as well.

The letter appears to suggest it would be in accordance with the "spirit" of the Belfast Agreement for the Government to legislate at Westminster to allow for widespread access to abortion in Northern Ireland.

The letter is fundamentally flawed.

The proper place for a discussion on abortion laws is here in Northern Ireland. However, the purpose of the BIIGC is to allow the UK and Irish Governments to consider non-devolved issues related to Northern Ireland and other matters of mutual interest.

From its very inception, it was made clear that the conference would not consider devolved areas like abortion.

The Prime Minister and others in the UK Government have recently reaffirmed this position because they know that devolution allows for a divergence of law across the United Kingdom. Indeed, that is the very essence of devolution.

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The letter implicitly acknowledges this point regarding devolution. However, it is suggested the recent Supreme Court judgment on the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland requires action to be taken.

Even if one sets aside the fact that the case was dismissed, and no declaration of incompatibility made, it is vital to understand that the non-binding comments only considered two areas - fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.

There is already a report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Executive that covers some of these matters and this needs to be considered by the Assembly when it finally reconvenes, in addition to the Supreme Court judgment.

For Westminster to act in the absence of an Executive would prevent local politicians from debating the issues and coming to a decision on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court judgment cannot be read as arguing that Northern Ireland should be required to decriminalise abortion because of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Neither can the Supreme Court judgment be read as justifying the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

This extraordinary proposal would allow abortion on demand for any reason up until the point of viability and would give us a far more permissive legal framework than Great Britain has under the 1967 Act or than the Irish Republic proposes after repeal of the Eighth Amendment to its constitution.

I do not believe there would be majority cross-party support in the Assembly for such a proposition.

Finally, there is a real irony in the letter calling on our Government to intervene to change the law on abortion in Northern Ireland on the basis of the Belfast Agreement. This Agreement created a power-sharing arrangement which fundamentally altered the governance of Northern Ireland.

It was designed to bring to an end to direct rule from Westminster. It restored devolution to allow the people of Northern Ireland through their elected representatives to make decisions for themselves.

To cite the Belfast Agreement in calling for Westminster to act to remove sections 58 and 59 and radically overhaul the law on abortion in Northern Ireland simply does not add up.

It is not remotely in line with the "spirit" of that Agreement for the course of action suggested in this letter to be taken.

Experienced parliamentarians who remember the enormous challenges we have come through in Northern Ireland, as some of those who signed this letter are, should know better.

I am of course painfully aware that the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently not sitting.

It is my sincere hope that it can be restored. One thing, however, that will be guaranteed to make that less likely is for politicians - the vast majority of whom come from outside Northern Ireland - to opportunistically unpick devolution for their own ends without regard to the long-term consequences for the political stability of Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister and Taoiseach should not allow the BIIGC to be used for a purpose it was never intended, and to undermine the delicate constitutional balances that underpin the political process in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is the DUP MP for Lagan Valley

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