No plans to intervene on Northern Ireland abortion law, says No 10

Spokesman says any change can only be made by region’s devolved assembly

Theresa May has no plans to help liberalise abortion rights in Northern Ireland following the Irish referendum result, Downing Street has said, insisting any change can only be made by the region’s devolved assembly, which collapsed 16 months ago.

The prime minister has faced intense political pressure over the law in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal except in exceptional circumstances, after voters in the Republic of Ireland strongly backed liberalisation.

But while May indicated her support for the Irish referendum decision in a tweet over the weekend, she would risk alienating the Democratic Unionist party MPs who support her government and who back the existing law if she sought to move on the matter from Westminster.

“The Irish Referendum yesterday was an impressive show of democracy which delivered a clear and unambiguous result. I congratulate the Irish people on their decision and all of #Together4Yes on their successful campaign.” – PM @theresa_may #repealedthe8th

— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) May 27, 2018

Asked what might happen to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, which do not make exceptions for conceptions by rape or incest and which allow for a maximum sentence of life in jail, May’s spokesman said it was a matter for the devolved Northern Ireland government.

“The prime minister said on Sunday that the Irish referendum was an impressive show of democracy, which delivered a clear result, and she congratulated the Irish people on the decision,” he said. “But it’s important to recognise that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to their own process, which is run by locally elected politicians.

“Our focus is restoring a democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland so that locally accountable politicians can make decisions on behalf of the public they represent.”

Labour said May was entitled to intervene as it was a human rights issue, and that she was only refusing to do so out of political cowardice.

“It gives the message that Theresa May is far more interested in protecting her very fragile government than she is in the women of Northern Ireland,” said Carolyn Harris, the party’s shadow equalities minister. “It’s purely because of her fear of the DUP that she’s not prepared to act on this.

“She can act. Health is devolved but human rights are not devolved, and you can’t get away from the fact that what’s happened to the women of Northern Ireland is a human rights issue.”

Harris said she expected May to have to change her mind on the issue, given the weight of opinion among many Conservative MPs.

“The problem she’s got is, many on her benches think that this is wrong,” she said. “She needs to decide which party she is a member of – the DUP or the Conservatives.”

The Northern Ireland assembly and administration collapsed in January 2017 after a disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin about a mishandled renewable energy subsidy scheme that cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds. There has been no progress since on forming a government, despite new elections and repeated attempts by May’s ministers to restart the process.

Asked whether there was a deadline for restoring the administration beyond which London might act, May’s spokesman indicated there was not. He said: “There have been a series of talks, there’s been a number of meetings between the prime minister, the secretary of state and the parties. It’s important that we continue the work of restoring power-sharing.”

The spokesman dismissed the idea of Westminster imposing a referendum on the issue in Northern Ireland, saying this “would need to be decided by a functioning executive in Stormont”.

About 160 MPs have backed a letter championed by the Labour MP Stella Creasy saying that the government should legislate to relax the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. Creasy wants to force a vote by tabling an amendment to the domestic violence bill in parliament.

Asked about this, May’s spokesman said that while votes on abortion in the Commons were not usually whipped on party lines, he could not comment on what might happen if Creasy’s amendment was tabled and voted on.

He said: “Where Westminster has had votes in relation to this in the past there has been a free vote, but I’m not going to comment on hypothetical amendments.”

He dismissed the idea that May was a “fair-weather feminist”, pointing to her record in areas such as equal pay, domestic violence and modern slavery. Asked what her message would be to women in Northern Ireland, the spokesman said: “We are working as hard as we can to get the devolved administration up and running.”


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
May resists Tory calls to act on Northern Ireland abortion
PM understood to have told MPs in private meeting that political climate makes reforms impossible

Jessica Elgot Political correspondent

04, Jun, 2018 @7:00 PM

Article image
No 10 vows to deliver on landmark Northern Ireland votes
Pledge follows Commons votes to extend same-sex marriage and abortion rights to region

Peter Walker

10, Jul, 2019 @2:32 PM

Article image
Northern Ireland secretary failed to comply with abortion duty, judge rules
Ruling will put pressure on UK government to address ongoing lack of abortion facilities in region

Alexandra Topping

14, Oct, 2021 @12:05 PM

Article image
Ministers accused of inaction over Northern Ireland abortion rights
MPs say government must provide clarity on legal situation for women

Heather Stewart Political editor

24, Apr, 2019 @11:00 PM

Article image
Northern Ireland to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage
Equality campaigners were celebrating before the midnight deadline for law to take effect

Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

21, Oct, 2019 @11:06 PM

Article image
MPs vote to extend abortion and same-sex marriage rights to Northern Ireland
Government has said it will honour both results despite ministerial doubts

Peter Walker, and Rory Carroll in Dublin

09, Jul, 2019 @4:18 PM

Article image
Northern Ireland abortion law clashes with human rights, judges say
Supreme court dismisses bid to overturn law but adds to pressure on politicians to act

Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent

07, Jun, 2018 @2:22 PM

Article image
Abortion ruling appeal by Northern Ireland minister 'insults women'
Justice minister David Ford’s decision to appeal November’s Horner judgment is criticised by pro-choice campaigners including the Greens’ Clare Bailey

Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent

27, Jan, 2016 @4:09 PM

Article image
Labour MPs to press May for Commons vote on Northern Ireland abortion ban
Diana Johnson to table bill aimed at forcing government into allowing proper Commons vote

Dan Sabbagh

21, Oct, 2018 @6:31 PM

Article image
Northern Ireland can create abortion clinic buffer zones, supreme court rules
Unanimous judgment in UK’s highest court means Stormont assembly can proceed with abortion services bill

Haroon Siddique Legal affairs correspondent

07, Dec, 2022 @12:51 PM