Westminster formally directs Stormont to set up abortion services

The British Government has used new powers to direct the Stormont Executive to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis confirmed the widely-anticipated move in a written ministerial statement to Parliament. Abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution in the region had collapsed. However, while individual health trusts are currently offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services due to an ongoing impasse within the Executive. In March, the Government intervened to hand Mr Lewis new powers to direct the region's Department of Health to commission the services. On Thursday, he formally took that step, directing the Department of Health and the First and deputy First Ministers to commission the services no later than 31 March, 2022. "This ongoing stalemate leaves me no choice but to issue a direction," said Mr Lewis. "I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access the healthcare as set out in the 2020 Regulations."The Northern Ireland Secretary issued the direction to the Department of Health, Minister of Health Robin Swann, the Health and Social Care Board, First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill. Mr Lewis noted that abortion was a sensitive issue. "I acknowledge and respect the deeply-held views that individuals hold on this issue," he said. "However, it is the clear will of Parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld."

The charity Informing Choices NI (ICNI) has been providing a central access point for women seeking early medical abortions in Northern Ireland since last April.

ICNI's director of advocacy and policy Ruairi Rowan said the action from Brandon Lewis was "long overdue".

"Immediate action must now be taken to provide the funding necessary to prevent the collapse of the central access point," he said.

"Supporting the early medical abortion services that are already in place is essential.

"Informing Choices NI stand ready to work with the Department of Health to ensure the continued delivery of a regional high-quality information, support and referral service without further delay."

Naomi Connor, from pro choice group Alliance for Choice, also welcomed the move.

"Finally, long overdue abortion services can take their place within healthcare in Northern Ireland," she said.

"We remain hopeful that people will no longer have to endure the degradation of forced travel to England or navigating a precarious and limited service."

But Liam Gibson, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said:

"It has to be made clear that the powers that the Secretary of State has exercised by doing this are being challenged in court, so it is not at all clear that what he is doing is lawful.

"That challenge won't be heard until October. We have written to the Health Department, warning them not to make any move on this direction until at least the powers that the Secretary of State has chosen to give himself have been considered by the courts.

"He is basically bypassing the devolved institutions and disenfranchising the people here.

"It really shouldn't be tolerated and we are urging people to write to the First Minister and deputy First Minister to make sure that they resist this power grab from Westminster.

"This has implications, not just for unborn children, but it also underlines the devolution settlement.

"It is a very, very black day for both women, children and democracy."

Carla Lockhart, an MP for the anti-abortion DUP, said the issue was one that local politicians should have been allowed to find consensus on.

"The Government's insistence on interfering on devolved issues undermines the institutions. Indeed, cynically, some local parties know that by failing to engage constructively to find that local agreement, that the Government will deliver their objectives by March 2022 at the latest," she said.

"What incentive have they now to give any regard to the pro-life views held by hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland?"

She added: "What we have in this statement from the Secretary of State is a further example of a government acting with no respect to the local electorate and locally elected politician

The DUP stand ready to find a locally agreed way forward."

Michelle O'Neill welcomed the Secretary of State's intervention.

She tweeted: "Finally women here can have access to the modern and compassionate healthcare services they are legally entitled to.

Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw said: "It is imperative this issue is now placed on the Executive's agenda and there is immediate sign-off.

"The last thing women here need are even further delays or the prospect of more legal action to avail of services."

Green Party MLA Clare Bailey said: "The actions of the Secretary of State are welcomed - this direction is vital given the denial of access to services for women in Northern Ireland and it is necessary given that Westminster has a responsibility to ensure compliance with international human rights standards."

But Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, said Mr Lewis's actions had shown that devolution was a "sham".

He added: "Brandon Lewis has made it clear that he has no regard for the powers of the Health Minister as he is directing him to secure the commissioning and availability of abortion in Northern Ireland.

"Frankly, if Mr Lewis can intervene like this, what's the point of devolution?"