Prime Minister Theresa May has been accused of putting “political manoeuvring” over the rights of women in the UK as she shrugged off responsibility for abortion laws in Northern Ireland, claiming it’s a devolved matter.
Downing Street has previously said it is down to the Northern Ireland Assembly to relax what pro-choice campaigners have called some of the “most restrictive and punitive measures in the world.” But as Northern Ireland has been without a government since talks between Sinn Fein party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed in January 2017, a coalition of campaign groups is calling on Westminster to step in to resolve what the UN has branded a flagrant breach of women’s rights.
But any intervention at the hands of the PM would likely sour her relationship with the staunch anti-abortion DUP, on which she relies for parliamentary votes in Westminster – after she was left without a majority following the snap election in June 2017. DUP leader Arlene Foster has already said the Republic’s vote will have no effect on her country.
Katherine O’Brien, a representative of Britain’s Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), told RT: “Although the government may argue that abortion law is devolved, human rights law is a power reserved to the UK parliament.”
While abortion can be legally carried out in England, Wales and Scotland under the 1967 Abortion Act, it is illegal in Northern Ireland, where the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act is still in place.
Earlier this year, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women told the UK government it is complicit in the breach of women’s rights in Northern Ireland. It called on Westminster to repeal section 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act which criminalize abortion.
“As the UN Committee explicitly stated, politicians in Westminster hold responsibility for reform. It is time for the government to accept this, and stop prioritizing political manoeuvring over the human rights of the women of the UK,” the BPAS Head of Media and Policy Research said.
Women seeking to terminate their pregnancy in Northern Ireland must travel to other parts of the UK where the practice is legal. The majority of those women will have to pay for their travel and accommodation expenses. O’Brien pointed out that those who are unable to travel, because of family opposition or lack of appropriate documentation, will have “no choice” but to buy abortion medication online, risking life imprisonment.
“By repealing this archaic law, Westminster would not be imposing an abortion regime on orthern Ireland. Rather it would enable the civil service in Northern Ireland – and indeed the Assembly at some point in the future – to create the abortion framework that they decide is appropriate,” O’Brien said.
The pro-choice campaigner then highlighted how “out of touch” the DUP is as a NI Life and Times Survey dating back to 2016 found a majority of its voters actually support abortion in certain circumstances.
“The UK government should look past the opposition of the DUP in Westminster and listen to the people of Northern Ireland who so clearly support change,” O’Brien told RT.
It comes as a group of 160 cross-party MPs backed a letter by Labour MP Stella Creasy calling on May to legislate in Northern Ireland or it would otherwise remain the only place in the UK where women’s fundamental rights are being overlooked.
And there you have it – the DUP will stop abortion reform in Northern Ireland whatever the will of the people or the human rights concerns of UN. That isn’t devolution. That’s being a dictatorship and overriding public – UK must speak up to #trustallwomenhttps://t.co/wFL3590FYd
— stellacreasy (@stellacreasy) May 29, 2018
The Government must act to ensure that women in Northern Ireland have the same rights as women across the rest of the UK. Labour is calling for the Government immediately to begin negotiations with political parties in Northern Ireland about legislation to extend abortion rights.
— (((Dawn Butler MP))) (@DawnButlerBrent) May 28, 2018
Yes, I #TrustAllWomen & will be voting for equal rights to abortion for women in N Ireland. This will now depend on whether Parliament is given the opportunity to vote on a cross Party amendment. The Speaker decides whether amendments are allowable/in scope & can be debated
— Sarah Wollaston MP (@sarahwollaston) May 27, 2018
Labour’s Shadow Attorney General Baroness Chakrabarti called on the PM to prove her feminist cause by committing to reform laws so they liberalize abortion in Northern Ireland.
“We are calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties in Northern Ireland and then to legislate without further delay,” Chakrabarti said.
“You can’t have democracy without fundamental human rights, and the women of Northern Ireland have suffered for long enough. I think Theresa May, really as a self-identifying feminist, needs to say: ‘Yes, I unveil statues of suffragists in Parliament Square, but the test of my feminism will be whether I guarantee fundamental human rights for women’.”
But Sinn Fein MLA for South Armagh in Stormont, Megan Fearon, opposed calls for Westminster to interfere.
“We need Irish law for Irish women and we need to see legislation created by institutions on this island enacted by people on this island because that is what the Good Friday agreement is about,” Fearon told RT.
Rather than Westminster delving into the matter, the MLA said her party would rather see the creation of a new assembly that could tackle the issue at its roots, as there is currently a “vacuum of rights” in Northern Ireland, abortion being just one among the many.
A staunch supporter of the Republic’s ‘Yes’ campaign, Fearon accused the DUP of blocking efforts to re-establish a power-sharing assembly by neglecting human fundamental rights, including those of language and marriage.
The MLA said Northern Ireland is now be seen as a “backwater” compared to the rest of the island “because they’re trying to impose their own moralistic virtues.
“But I think that people fundamentally have these rights, they’re inherent and we should have them here. And that is at the heart of the current political crisis, the fact we don’t have these rights,” Fearon concluded.
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