Abortion rights used to get DUP to back Brexit deal, says Stella Creasy

Labour MP accuses government of willingness to let Stormont be in control of abortion laws

Labour MP Stella Creasy has accused the government of preparing to hand back control of abortion rights to Stormont to help curry favour with the DUP at a critical moment in the Brexit talks.

Creasy led a successful push in the Commons earlier this year to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland – the only part of the UK where it remains illegal except in a very narrow set of circumstances. MPs amended the Northern Ireland (executive formation) bill, to say that the government in Westminster would be required to extend the right to abortion if the Northern Ireland assembly and executive at Stormont are not up and running by 21 October.

Another amendment imposed the same requirement in respect of same-sex marriage.

With just days to go before that deadline, the Northern Ireland secretary, Julian Smith, has spent much of the past few days locked in discussions with all the political parties at Stormont.

Northern Ireland minister Robin Walker, speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening, hinted the government believes the devolved institutions could soon be restored.

“The British and Irish governments both share the view that there remains an opportunity in the coming days to reach an accommodation,” he said.

He said that if the assembly and the executive are not up and running by Monday’s deadline, the government will extend rights to abortion and same sex marriage to Northern Ireland, as required by the act.

But he insisted, “this would not be a good outcome”, saying it would be better for the decisions to be made by the devolved institutions.

“One only has to look at the passionate and sincere demonstrations in recent weeks on both sides of this issue to appreciate that this remains a highly sensitive matter in Northern Ireland.

“I understand that there are many people in Northern Ireland who may welcome the change. There are also many who would not. I would prefer, and the government would prefer, that the Northern Ireland assembly was considering reforms of Northern Ireland’s abortion law.”

However, Creasy claimed handing control back to Stormont would be in contravention of the act, which places an obligation on the secretary of state to ensure the recommendations of a report by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women be extended to Northern Ireland.

“The act specifically says the regulations that enable abortion rest with Secretary of State and are a human rights issue. For the assembly to take over the responsibility will require change to that,” she said. She tweeted that the government was using women as “bargaining chips”.

So that’s deal government has done to get @DUPleader support this week- they are going to wash their hands of responsibility to regulate abortion in Northern Ireland. It’s not in law they can whatever they say. Shameful using women as bargaining chips! #brexithaos #trustwomen

— stellacreasy (@stellacreasy) October 16, 2019

The DUP, which describes itself as a “pro-life party”, has expressed concerns about the extension of abortion rights; and the party’s leader, Arlene Foster, joined a demonstration outside Stormont on the issue last month.

In an article published shortly afterwards, she said the party’s position on the issue was “resolute and unchanged,” and insisted the planned liberalisation of abortion law was “far beyond anything any Northern Ireland assembly would ever have endorsed”.

With Boris Johnson hoping to secure the DUP’s support for his Brexit deal in the coming days, Creasy challenged Walker in the Commons.

“The last time that there were official cross-party talks was in July. We are literally five days away from this bill becoming an act, and therefore the provisions on abortion and same sex marriage being extended as equal rights to Northern Ireland.

“What could it possibly be in the next couple of days that has made suddenly the government to have such a renewed vigour in these talks, and to offer the idea that abortion could be suspended for Northern Ireland, to the people, when there’s a Brexit deal to be done?” she asked.

Walker replied that he completely rejected that characterisation.

As crunch talks continue over securing a Brexit deal with the EU, the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs is crucial. The DUP’s apparent backing for customs arrangements proposed by Johnson, which involve an effective border in the Irish Sea, came as a surprise to many – though it remains unclear whether the DUP will support Johnson’s deal.


Kate Proctor and Heather Stewart

The GuardianTramp

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