Belfast Telegraph

'Technical problems' around changes to Northern Ireland's same-sex marriage and abortion laws

A mural in support of same sex marriage on the Falls Road in Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)
A mural in support of same sex marriage on the Falls Road in Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

Talks are continuing aimed at ensuring that MP-backed moves to liberalise access to abortion and allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland can be introduced.

There were "technical problems" around the changes to legislation overwhelmingly approved by the Commons and there was a need to make sure they were "fit for purpose", peers were told at Westminster.

Giving the update, Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan of Springbank stressed that the amendments had been "the clear will" of MPs in free votes.

His comments came at the end of a debate in the House of Lords, which saw peers clash over the right of Westminster to legislate on the devolved matters of abortion and same-sex marriage.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill seeks to again push back reintroducing a law placing a legal duty on Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley to call a fresh assembly election.

The aim is to give the Stormont parties more time to resolve the long-running deadlock in the province and restore the powersharing executive, two and a half years after it collapsed.

However, during consideration in the Commons, MPs agreed a series of changes to the legislation.

Gay marriage is illegal in Northern Ireland, while abortions are only allowed in cases where a woman's life is at risk or if there is a danger of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

MPs backed by a majority of 310 - 383 to 73 - an amendment tabled by Labour's Conor McGinn to legalise same-sex marriage if a new Stormont executive is not formed by October.

A proposal by Labour MP Stella Creasy, aimed at extending abortion access, was approved by 332 votes to 99.

Speaking during the Bill's committee stage, Lord Duncan said: "Abortion is a sensitive issue. There are strongly held views across all sides of the debate both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

"We must recognise the clear will of the other place (the Commons). That House sought a clear commitment that the Government would legislate in these matters.

"The Government respects the views expressed in the other place. Those views were expressed on a free vote which is, of course, a mater of conscience.

"The amendments which have come from the other place are procedurally correct.

"There are technical problems with the drafting of this particular clause which do need to be resolved.

"On an issue as important as abortion, which relates to the health and safety of women in Northern Ireland, it is not enough to express the desire for change.

"The Government must ensure the drafting of the Bill is effective and can in practical terms deliver the change that the members of the other place clearly want to see.

"Discussion is ongoing with the support of the Government to try to deliver a clause that works.

"Discussions have taken place with the two members of Parliament who have moved forward these amendments.

"I hope that when we come back to consider these at report stage we will have amendments which are fit for purpose."

During the Bill's committee stage there were calls to delay the relaxation of Northern Ireland's abortion laws and to allow for consultation.

But Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Barker pointed out that peers never heard "from the thousand women a year who leave Northern Ireland and come to the mainland in order to receive the treatment they are entitled to receive as citizens of the United Kingdom".

Independent crossbencher Baroness Deech said she had been "shocked and dismayed" at the protests of Northern Ireland politicians to the changes.

She said: "You may or may not approve of abortion. You may or may not approve of same-sex marriage, but we live in a world where we have to tolerate all these relationships and choices.

"If you don't like it... you don't have to do it. But you must not stop other people having the information and having the right.

"Devolution is being used as an excuse."

But Democratic Unionist Party peer Lord Browne of Belmont said: "It simply cannot be right for Great Britain MPs to overrule every Northern Ireland MP."

Independent crossbencher Baroness Boycott said: "I don't think any woman has wanted to have an abortion.

"I am shocked by a lot of the attitudes that seem to be coming through which imply that women go for abortions in a willy-nilly, not caring sort of fashion.

"In fact it's a terrible decision for any woman. It is not one that is undertaken lightly."

DUP peer Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown said he was speaking "for the voices of the unborn".

He said: "This Bill is being used, I suggest abused, to take it out of the hands of the people of Northern Ireland and those who represent them."

Later the DUP's Lord Morrow said it was vital that protections for religious liberty should be put in place, prohibiting any person or religious body from being compelled to conduct same-sex marriage.

He said Northern Ireland should have the same protections in law as England and Wales, including those preventing discrimination claims against religious organisations declining to participate in same-sex marriages.

Speaking during committee stage, Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Hain expressed his fear that the region was "hurtling towards direct rule".

Warning the DUP, he said: "I hope they are taking note of what is happening in de facto parliamentary direct rule. A lot of the things that are coming through are ones they are not happy about. That is a consequence of the assembly being suspended."

He also argued that Sinn Fein and the DUP were at fault for the long-standing power vacuum at Stormont.

Lord Hain again pressed the case for victims who were severely injured as a result of the Troubles to receive a pension.

Proposing an amendment to the Bill, he said: "There are few Northern Ireland legacy issues that come before us that do not have some element of contention about them.

"The toxic issue that has prevented this measure being passed at Stormont... is around who would qualify for this pension.

"I want to make it absolutely clear... what I am proposing and asking support for is for a pension for those severely injured through no fault of their own.

"I can think of few more perverse cruelties than for a widow who lost her husband in a terrorist incident... to discover 30 or 40 years later that the person who planted that bomb and who survived but was injured was to receive a special pension form the state. That would be shocking."

Lord Hain's call received backing from the Liberal Democrat and Opposition front benches.

For the Government, Lord Duncan said he was able to offer a "positive" response but technical improvements to the amendment were needed on Tuesday.

Lord Hain agreed to withdraw the amendment and submit a revised version on Tuesday.

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