Belfast Telegraph

Less than half of MLAs confirm stance on abortion law changes

Stewart Dickson
Stewart Dickson
Claire Sugden
Patsy McGlone

By Ralph Hewitt and Brett Campbell

Only 44 of Northern Ireland's 90 MLAs would confirm their views on the pending liberalisation of abortion laws which will be implemented in three weeks.

With the clock ticking until existing restrictions on abortion will be drastically reduced - unless devolution is restored by October 21 - less than half of Assembly members have stated where they stand.

According to a DUP spokesperson all 28 of the party's MLAs are opposed to the changes outlined in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act which was passed by MPs in July and placed a duty on the government to provide access to abortion here.

"We are the only consistently pro-life Executive party," they said.

The Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein did not respond when asked to outline the position of its MLAs.

The SDLP's Dolores Kelly, Nichola Mallon, John Dallat, Colin McGrath, Daniel McCrossan, Pasty McGlone, Mark H Durkan and Justin McNulty all expressed opposition to the changes.

Mr Dallat called for an immediate recall of the Assembly to stop the legislation in its tracks.

Ms Kelly described the action of MPs in Westminster as "outrageous" and the majority of parties and people here oppose liberal abortion provision.

Mr Durkan said he is "pro-life and pro-devolution".

"It is a complete abdication of responsibility by parties here to have left us without government for 1000 days," he said.

"Their refusal to work together has negatively impacted on health, education and our economy and now it is going to give us the most liberal abortion policy on these islands."

Ms Mallon told the Belfast Telegraph: "Decisions affecting the lives of people living in Northern Ireland should be taken by a locally elected and accountable Assembly.

"Review and reform of abortion laws should be done by an Assembly not remotely by Westminster. This legislation is extreme and I do not support it."

However, Alliance representatives Trevor Lunn, Stewart Dickson, Kellie Armstrong, John Blair, Paula Bradshaw and Stephen Farry all expressed support but with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Mr Lunn, who stated that the chance of Stormont being back up and running by October 21 is "non-existent", expressed his support for a woman's right to choose but said there "needs to be a discussion regarding the rules and regulations here".

"I wouldn't be in favour of the 1967 Act being brought in here," he added.

"I think it's far too liberal and 24 weeks [into the pregnancy] is too long [to allow an abortion]."

Mr Dickson, who proposed the amendment to legalise abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality during a 2016 Stormont vote, said he continues to support the legalisation of abortion but only in those circumstances.

Mr Farry qualified his support by stressing his preference would be for the Assembly to reform the law and address "fundamental rights and equality issues".

"I am content for Westminster to do so on our behalf. The Assembly is out of step with local opinion and has failed to progress even basic reforms," he added.

"If change happens on October 21, it then falls to either the Assembly or Westminster to put in place a revised set of regulations."

However, regulations will be required to be in place by the end of March 2020.

Independent MLA and former justice minister Claire Sugden said she believes change is needed.

But believes the issue should be debated in the Assembly.

"I'm not sure I can say I am for or against the change because what has been proposed is much more radical than what happens in other parts of the UK," she stated.

"I do think there needs to be some sort of reform, but I do have difficulty with how this legislation is going to go through because ultimately it removes any accountability for abortion at any time and I do have problems with that."

TUV leader Jim Allister confirmed he opposes the changes.

However, Green Party leader Clare Bailey said she supports the "overdue" decriminalisation of abortion services but called for "fit for purpose" regulations to be put in place.

"We have long known that Westminster has failed our women by not meeting basic human rights," she added.

However, South Down DUP MLA Jim Wells, who has had the whip withdrawn and no longer speaks for the party, strongly disagreed as he accused Sinn Fein of "using the lives of unborn children as bargaining chips" in Stormont talks.

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