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NI Executive ordered to establish abortion service and fund interim arrangements to prevent ‘collapse’

Presbyterian Church in Ireland describe Secretary of State’s intervention as ‘regrettable’


Protests have been held over the delay in implementing central services. Pic PA Niall Carson - library image.

Protests have been held over the delay in implementing central services. Pic PA Niall Carson - library image.

Protests have been held over the delay in implementing central services. Pic PA Niall Carson - library image.

The Northern Ireland Executive has been ordered to set up abortion services by March. 

The NI Secretary has also directed that immediate support be provided to sustain the interim services currently being offered by the health trusts.

He warned that those services were “at risk of collapse”.

“Though I recognise the huge strain that Covid-19 has placed on healthcare in Northern Ireland, I remain extremely disappointed that full commissioning proposals have not yet been brought forward by the Department of Health and that the Executive has not an opportunity to discuss them,” he said.

Brandon Lewis issued the directions to the Department of Health, Minister of Health Robin Swann, the Health and Social Care Board, First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

Mr Lewis said it was for the Executive to find the funding necessary for the services from within the annual Treasury block grant or its own coffers.

“At the heart of this matter are the women and girls in Northern Ireland, who have been, and continue to be, denied the same reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK,” he said.

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“Parliament determined that this should be corrected and by exercising the power to direct, we will ensure that it is.”

Mr Lewis noted that abortion was a sensitive issue.

“I acknowledge and respect the deeply-held views that individuals hold on this issue,” he said.

“However, it is the clear will of Parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld.”

He Lewis explained why the Government had created the new powers in relation to directing the commission of services.

He said: “We took this important step because a year after the 2020 Regulations were made, women and girls in Northern Ireland are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland in all the circumstances allowed by the Regulations we made on March 31 2020. This remains the case today.”

The Executive has stalled on setting up a full service for women since Westminster passed laws to legalise abortion last year. MPs acted during the suspension of power-sharing.

While the Department of Health has yet to commission a central service, health trusts have been offering an ad-hoc service.

In March, the government again intervened to hand Mr Lewis new powers to direct the Department of Health to act.

On Thursday, he formally took that step, directing the Department of Health and the First and deputy First Ministers to commission the services no later than March 31, 2020.

“This ongoing stalemate leaves me no choice but to issue a direction,” said Mr Lewis.

“I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access the healthcare as set out in the 2020 Regulations.”

The DUP MP Carla Lockhart accused Mr Lewis of “interfering” in devolution and argued local politicians should be given the chance to “find consensus” on the issue.

Meanwhile, a statement issued on behalf of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland said they wished to express their “total opposition” to the Secretary of State’s intervention.

“It is deeply regrettable that Mr Lewis did not take time to reflect on how destructive his imposed legislation will be for future generations of unborn children in Northern Ireland,” they said. 

"It is also astonishing that in today’s Written Statement seeking to further impose his will on the devolved institutions, he describes this as his ‘moral obligation.’ There is nothing ‘moral’ about this destructive direction, nor indeed the original legislation that he previously inflicted on the people of Northern Ireland.”

In a statement, the Department of Health told the Belfast Telegraph: “The Department of Health is proceeding with options to develop and cost a commissioning model for the delivery of abortion services in Northern Ireland in line with the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No.2) Regulations, and in a way that is consistent with the Health and Social Care Board’s service commissioning and delivery practice.

"Under the Ministerial Code, the service model, as developed, will then need to be referred to the Executive in due course for agreement.”

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