Pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners have held separate protests in Belfast amid the deepening political row over the commissioning of services in Northern Ireland.
The small-scale demonstrations in the city centre came after DUP First Minister Paul Givan threatened to block the Government move to formally direct Stormont to fully roll out abortion services in the region.
Northern Ireland’s once strict abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution had collapsed.
The Government introduced regulations to give effect to those law changes the following year.
However, more than a year on, Stormont’s Department of Health has yet to centrally commission full services due to an impasse within the devolved administration.
Early medical abortions have been offered by individual health trusts on an ad hoc basis since last year but the limitations on service provision have seen many women continue to travel to England to access surgical abortions during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The anti-abortion DUP has blocked consideration of central commissioning at the Stormont Executive.
This forced the Government to introduce new powers to allow Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to intervene on the devolved issue to formally direct Stormont to roll out the services.
While Sinn Fein has welcomed the Government intervention as a means to break the impasse, Mr Givan has sought legal advice on how to “resist” Mr Lewis’s orders.
Belfast city councillor Fiona Ferguson helped organise the pro-choice rally at Writer’s Square on Saturday afternoon.
“We’re here because of the Executive first of all dragging its feet for this long after decriminalisation,” the People Before Profit representative told the PA news agency.
“But now that we know they’ve been given a directive from Westminster, frankly and understandably a lot of activists in Belfast don’t trust the Executive to act.
“That’s been reinforced by Paul Givan coming out very swiftly to say he will try to block abortion services.”
Councillor Ferguson added: “I think that the DUP may well try to take this to court and, if they do, the (pro-choice) movement is prepared to mobilise to make it clear what the vast majority of people want here.
“Those who try to block abortion, they’re not just moving against women’s rights, it’s also against democracy, because the vast majority of people here have said time and again we need abortion services, we want abortion services and we won’t stand for no abortion services for much longer.”
Across Writer’s Square, a number of activists from Abolish Abortion NI held a counter-rally.
Mark Lambe from the Christian anti-abortion group said the DUP should be prepared to walk out of the powersharing administration if the Government forced through services.
He said Mr Lewis had taken “extreme” powers that were without precedent in devolution settlements across the UK.
“The powers that he has taken give him the ability to direct any department or any minister in the Executive, so in fact he can, without a single vote or without a mandate, appoint himself as a minister on the Executive,” said Mr Lambe.
“What we’re calling for is Robin Swann (Health Minister) to issue an immediate counter-direction to undo the directions that he (Mr Lewis) has given and we are also then calling on the First Minister (Mr Givan) to consider his position on the Executive if the Secretary of State seeks to implement any further abortion regime in Northern Ireland.”
At nearby Cornmarket in the city centre, the anti-abortion group Precious Life created a temporary artwork using pairs of baby shoes to form 1,556 – signifying the number of abortions carried out in Northern Ireland since the regulations were introduced last year.