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Commons abortion debate a first step in the right direction, says Sinn Fein's O'Neill

By Mark Bain

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill welcomed yesterday's Westminster debate on abortion, describing it as a "first step" on the road to reform here.

Mrs O'Neill said she wanted repeal of the relevant sections of the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act to ensure abortion was no longer treated as a criminal offence.

She called for the UK and Irish Governments to then come together in the British Irish Inter-governmental Conference - a body set up under the auspices of the Good Friday Agreement - to discuss how to change the laws on terminations.

Sinn Fein supports abortion in extreme cases, like fatal foetal abnormality. However, the party is due to consider whether to change policy at its ard fheis later this month in order to support unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks.

"I welcome the fact that MPs are talking about decriminalising this issue because women have been criminalised here for far too long," said Mrs O'Neill.

"Women have been criminalised when they find themselves in very, very difficult circumstances, so we welcome that debate but clearly we need to see legislative change in the north."

Mrs O'Neill said she would prefer to be enacting changes at Stormont but that was impossible due to the current power-sharing impasse, which she blamed on the DUP.

She added: "I for one want to be a legislator that brings about that change, but because of the DUP's denial of rights, and the fact we don't have an institution, because of the DUP's denial of rights, what we need to see is the inter-governmental conference to meet and for them to deal with the rights-based issues, including the issue of women's healthcare."

During yesterday's Commons debate Independent North Down MP Lady Hermon sought assurances for her constituents that the "important" debate did not undermine devolution.

She told Labour MP Stella Creasy: "I have received a large number of emails from constituents who feel that MPs at Westminster are usurping the powers and responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Assembly during a period when we haven't had a functioning Assembly, and I wish we did have one."

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