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Theresa May resists pressure over Northern Ireland’s abortion laws

Tory MPs have spoken out in favour of liberalising Northern Ireland’s laws after the historic Irish referendum result.


Calls for Northern Ireland abortion reform pose a political headache for Theresa May (Peter Byrne/PA)

Calls for Northern Ireland abortion reform pose a political headache for Theresa May (Peter Byrne/PA)

Calls for Northern Ireland abortion reform pose a political headache for Theresa May (Peter Byrne/PA)

Theresa May is resisting calls from Tory MPs to push for reform of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws after the Irish referendum.

Ministers – including within her own Cabinet – have indicated their support for liberalisation of laws to resolve an “anomaly” within the British Isles.

Scores of MPs across the Commons have indicated they are prepared to act to rewrite the current legislation given the absence of a devolved administration in Stormont.

But the Prime Minister faces a political headache over calls to act because her fragile administration depends on the support of the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs – who strongly oppose any reform to Northern Ireland’s strict laws.

Mrs May has not publicly commented on the result of the Irish vote, but Downing Street is understood to believe that any reform “is an issue for Northern Ireland”.

“It shows one of the important reasons we need a functioning executive back up and running,” a source said.

Pressure from within her own party could force the Prime Minister to act, with Education Minister Anne Milton suggesting she would back liberalisation if there was a free vote.

The current situation “does feel anomalous”, she told ITV’s Peston on Sunday.

Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt – who is responsible for the women and equalities brief in Government – said the referendum signalled a “historic and great day for Ireland” and a “hopeful one for Northern Ireland”.

“That hope must be met,” she added.

Four former holders of the women and equalities role – Amber Rudd, Justine Greening, Nicky Morgan and Maria Miller – all back Ms Mordaunt in support for reform in Northern Ireland, the Sunday Times reported.

Sarah Wollaston, the Tory chairwoman of the Commons Health Select Committee, said: “I would vote to support an extension of abortion rights to all women across the whole UK.

“As this is a devolved issue, if an amendment is not accepted by the Speaker, then there should at very least be a referendum in Northern Ireland on this issue.”

But DUP MP Ian Paisley said Northern Ireland “should not be bullied into accepting abortion on demand”.

“The settled will of the people has been to afford protections to the unborn life and protect the life of the mother,” he said.

Labour MP Stella Creasy claimed more than 140 parliamentarians had already signalled support for an effort to change the law in Northern Ireland.

In a message to the DUP, she said the people of Northern Ireland “consistently support change” in the abortion law and it was “time to put them, not power in Westminster, first”.

The forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill promised by ministers could be used as a vehicle for MPs hoping to change the law in Northern Ireland.

Abortions are currently only legal in Northern Ireland if the life or mental health of the mother is at risk.

While political leaders south of the border were at the forefront of efforts to liberalise the law during the referendum campaign, a majority of politicians in Northern Ireland do not favour the radical law changes now proposed in their neighbouring jurisdiction.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said he would back reform of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws in a free vote, but did not promise Labour would bring a bill before the Commons if the party was in charge.

Women should have the same rights as those elsewhere in the UK, he told Sky’s Ridge on Sunday, but stressed Labour must “tread sensitively and be aware of the realities of devolution”.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said she would like the decision to be taken in Northern Ireland, but in the absence of a Stormont executive “we have to find a way to deliver rights”.

She told ITV’s Peston On Sunday: “I think the fact there is a recognition even here in England that the law needs to change in the North of Ireland is a good thing.”

Justice Minister Rory Stewart warned against the Commons intervening on the issue.

“It isn’t the job – and it would be very, very dangerous – for British politicians to be seen to be telling people in Northern Ireland how to vote,” he told BBC’s Sunday Politics.

The UK Government was acting as a “caretaker” administration in the absence of Stormont, and “that must not be used to make fundamental constitutional, ethical changes on behalf of the people in Northern Ireland”.