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

Theresa May is unwilling to act to change restrictive abortion rules in Northern Ireland, telling a private meeting of Conservative MPs that the political climate made change impossible.

The prime minister was warned she would face escalating backbench pressure to offer a referendum or extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, which has some of the most restrictive rules on abortion in the world.

In Downing Street, May met the former home secretary Amber Rudd, former education secretary Justine Greening and Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities committee.

Also present was international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, who also holds the women and equalities brief. Mordaunt backs a move to liberalise the law.

Downing Street made it clear the government believes the situation should be dealt with by Stormont once the Northern Ireland assembly was restored. The prime minister also faces pressure from Democratic Unionist MPs, whom May relies on for a Commons majority; they are vehemently against reforming the abortion laws.

“We want to see devolved government in Northern Ireland restored so that locally elected, democratically accountable politicians can debate fundamental changes and the people of Northern Ireland have a direct say in the process,” No 10 said.

The Guardian understands May told MPs at the meeting she was not prepared to overrule Stormont, and said the issue of abortion was a sensitive one in Northern Ireland and in the Conservative party.

May is understood to have told the Tory MPs that disquiet over the Northern Ireland abortion laws would come at an extremely sensitive time for the government, including potentially during crucial Brexit votes and may hamper efforts to restore power-sharing at Stormont.

In turn, the prime minister was warned there was a growing appetite among Tory MPs for a referendum, or an act to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland.

Miller told the Guardian the issue of abortion would always be one where backbenchers led the charge. “It’s always a free vote, it’s always to do with backbenchers putting forward idea. It’s not about what the government wants or doesn’t want,” she said.

She said a referendum could be possible while the NI executive was not functioning, with a change enacted once a deal was reached.

“What I want to do is make sure we do not lose momentum in processes that were already going on in Northern Ireland that pointed towards need for a reform,” Miller said.

“A referendum would help inform the political parties who take over the administration when that happens. It is preferable to have anything done in this area reflecting the will of the people of Northern Ireland, not imposed from Westminster.”

Some MPs may even go further and back a proposed amendment by the Labour MP Stella Creasy to repeal the 1861 Offences against the Person Act (OPA), which made it a crime for any woman to cause her own abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act exempted women in England and Wales – but the restrictions continue to apply in Northern Ireland.

Creasy and her supporters believe they can force all parts of the UK to reconsider their abortion laws by repealing sections of the 1861 act, a move backed by several key women’s charities including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

The Labour MP won a bid for emergency debate on the topic in parliament on Monday night. She was publicly backed by Mordaunt and Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, as well as dozens of other Tory backbenchers, who “stood up” to indicate to the Speaker they supported holding the debate. The three-hour debate will take place on Tuesday morning.

Creasy said repealing sections of OPA would “remove the impediment to Northern Ireland making its own legislation” on abortion. “Women in Northern Ireland cannot be held hostage to the ups and downs of the Brexit negotiations, the deals done in a hung parliament or the stall in talks in Stormont.”

However, Miller said repealing OPA was “not the right approach” but that there was widespread support for giving people in Northern Ireland a say in changing the law. “It must reflect the will of people there, not the will of a small number of people in Westminster,” she said.


Jessica Elgot Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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