Belfast Telegraph

Stormont Assembly must be the place to decide if Northern Ireland abortion laws need reformed, says Bradley

By Richard Wheeler

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley has said she personally backs abortion reform - but the Assembly must be restored to consider the issue to avoid disenfranchising 1.8 million people.

Ms Bradley confirmed that if abortion came before the House of Commons then a free vote would take place, as it is a "matter of conscience".

But she insisted her focus is on restoring Stormont, amid intense cross-party calls to liberalise Northern Ireland's abortion laws following the landslide pro-choice referendum victory in the Republic last month.

Fellow Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt went further, saying MPs had sent a message to Northern Ireland's politicians that if they do not act on the issue, "we will".

Labour's Stella Creasy, leading an emergency Commons debate, said the proposal to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861 - which criminalises abortion - would respect devolution and not change the abortion time limit or the role of medics.

But the DUP's equality spokeswoman Emma Little-Pengelly told MPs: "What this proposal would do would be to impose on the people of Northern Ireland one of the most liberal abortion regimes anywhere in the world - abortion on demand up to 24 weeks - in the absence of a regime or guidelines because currently those do not exist and if this went ahead there would be nothing there apart from the legality and decriminalisation up to 24 weeks."

Walthamstow MP Ms Creasy argued she was not proposing any particular law but repealing existing UK legislation that would require Northern Ireland to act.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier hit out at the DUP after it insisted Westminster should not meddle with Northern Ireland's strict abortion regime, insisting the UK Parliament has a responsibility to respect human rights standards.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said that abortion is a devolved matter and should only be dealt with by the Assembly, which is currently suspended.

Speaking in the Commons for the Government, Ms Bradley said she personally wanted to see reform, but said it was "a matter for the people of Northern Ireland".

She said: "This is a matter of conscience: a free vote on this issue in this House would be afforded if the matter of abortion comes before the House again, and the same applies in Northern Ireland.

"That is why the Government, like its predecessors, believes that the best forum to debate and resolve these and many other matters is a locally elected Northern Ireland Assembly, so the Government's priority remains to urgently re-establish strong, inclusive, devolved government at the earliest opportunity."

Concluding, Ms Bradley stressed the need for the Assembly to consider the issue and listen to the views of the people. She added: "Or, as (Tory MP Maria Miller) suggested, we are in danger of disenfranchising 1.8m citizens of the United Kingdom."

Ms Bradley added: "The Prime Minister has been clear in her support for women's rights in respect of access to safe abortions and she welcomed the referendum result in Ireland.

"We are in agreement that the best way forward for Northern Ireland is through locally accountable politicians making important decisions through devolution, and for the people of Northern Ireland to have their say on the devolved issues which affect their daily lives."

DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today because the Abortion Act 1967 was not accepted.

"I am proud of that pro-life position, I am proud of the fact that there are so many people alive in Northern Ireland today because we have a law that respects the rights of both women and of the unborn child and we will maintain that position."

He said the law in Northern Ireland had been shown to reduce the number of abortions in the jurisdiction, and said: "For that reason I am very thoughtful about any change in the law in Northern Ireland."

Sir Jeffrey added: "There are strong voices on both sides of this debate, this is a devolved issue - it should be left to the people of Northern Ireland to decide."

DUP MP Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) was heckled as he insisted the laws "do reflect the views of the people" in Northern Ireland.

Mr Wilson said: "We have people today in Northern Ireland who are rearing families, who are contributing to society, who are building their businesses, who are working in our factories, who are sitting in our schools, who otherwise, if we had had the legislation which exists here in the rest of the United Kingdom, would have been discarded and put in a bin before they were ever born."

Belfast Telegraph

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