Sir John Hayes is a former Minister of State who served in six departments, and is MP for South Holland and the Deepings.
The restoration of Stormont in January ended three years of division, giving the people of Northern Ireland the ability again to make their voices count through their elected MLAs. All of those involved in the process of restoration deserve thanks for their persistence, dedication and willingness to compromise.
Though it is right to celebrate this restoration, we should remain cautious, for the foundations of the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland remain fragile. As the Province is an essential part of the United Kingdom, the UK Government has an ethical, as well as a constitutional obligation to defend and strengthen these foundations. Turning a blind eye to this duty would be a fundamental mistake.
In the next few weeks, the UK Government faces the first test of its commitment to the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland – as an amendment (proposed by the Labour MP Stella Creasy) was passed to last year’s Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act requiring a framework which would allow the provision of abortion in the Province in very limited circumstances.
Even though Stormont is now back, the UK Government, unless it chooses to change the law, remains legally bound to carry out the implementation of this new abortion framework before 31st March.
Specifically, through this amendment, the Government is legally required to implement an abortion framework in Northern Ireland which would allow abortion when there is a threat to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health, the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or if the unborn child was diagnosed with a life-limiting disability.
Disturbingly, the consultation published by the Northern Ireland Office proposed a framework which went far beyond these limited legal requirements. The consultation proposed to allow abortion for any reason – including the sex or race of the baby – for up to either 12 or 14 weeks; de-facto abortion on demand to either 22 or 24 weeks; remove the legal requirement that a doctor must be involved in the process; legally allow abortions to take place in schools or over Facetime/Skype; and would legally allow abortions up to birth after the diagnosis of either cleft lip, club foot, or Down’s Syndrome as the primary condition.
On this latter point, a campaign led by Heidi Crowter, which wants to change the law so disability-selection abortion cannot take place up to birth was recently featured on national television.
On top of all this, outrageously, the proposals consulted upon suggest that the criminal sentences that men would face in Northern Ireland for spiking a woman’s food or drink with an abortion pill should be reduced.
Quite why the Northern Ireland office officials chose to go so far beyond what Parliament wanted is a matter of speculation. Some say the Government might be using Northern Ireland as a ‘guinea pig’ to test policies before implementing them in England, rather as the poll tax was ‘tested’ in Scotland.
If there were public demand in Northern Ireland for this greatly expanded abortion framework, the peculiar stance of the Northern Ireland Office might be more explicable. Yet, no such public appetite exists. In fact, recent research conducted by the University of Liverpool shows that only five per cent of people in Northern Ireland support introducing abortion through to 24-weeks, as the Government’s proposed framework aims to do.
The same research shows that 58 per cent of Sinn Fein voters and 54 per cent of DUP only want abortions to be allowed when there is a threat to the mother’s health.
Just weeks ago we were celebrating the DUP and Sinn Fein putting aside differences to restore the assembly. Wouldn’t it be sadly ironic then if the UK Government imposed a policy on Northern Ireland, overriding devolution in the process, that unites the majority of voters from both parties in their hostility to Westminster.
The simplest way to stop the UK Government infringing on the devolution settlement is to repeal Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act. This would end the legal requirement for the UK Government to impose abortion on Northern Ireland, giving back full control to the devolved administration.
As many aspects of the proposed abortion framework go way beyond what is currently allowed in England and Wales, given the contrary views of the people in Northern Ireland, it seems likely this will be interpreted as the UK Government imposing its will on a reluctant part of the Kingdom which is doubtless disdainfully regarded by Whitehall’s liberal elite as antediluvian.
As Conservatives and Unionists, anything that threatens the fabric of our United Kingdom damages the very essence of our Party’s credo. Feeding the feeling that Westminster is using Northern Ireland to test policies before implementing them in England could fuel Irish nationalism (Just as an equivalent narrative fuelled Scottish nationalism in the 1990’s) – we run the risk of history repeating itself
Rather than imposing a policy that is not being applied anywhere else in the Union, we should limit the changes to only those that are legally required, or repeal Section 9 altogether. Anything that endangers the fabrics of our United Kingdom should be opposed by all true Conservatives.
This is a People’s Government, of a kind longed for by hard working patriots for years. So, in this spirit, Ministers must listen to the opinions of the Northern Irish on the implementation of the abortion framework. The people’s will must prevail.
To re-empathise the Government’s commitment to the devolution settlement – the bedrock of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland – the Northern Ireland Office must repeal section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act, or – at the very least – not go beyond what is legally required while abortion is fully devolved to Northern Ireland and the new Assembly’s authority is honoured.