Abortion in Northern Ireland is being blocked by Theresa May’s deal with the DUP, Sinn Féin’s leader, Michelle O’Neill, said, blaming the party’s confidence deal with the Conservatives for holding back women’s rights.
After meeting the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, O’Neill said she was convinced the government was unwilling to move on the issue because of the deal with the Democratic Unionists, whose MPs support May’s minority government.
O’Neill said: “The DUP are a barrier to women’s rights. They are being assisted, aided, allowed to deny people rights – it’s the price of the relationship with the Tories in Westminster. [Northern Ireland] is becoming a backwater for rights, a political, cultural, backwater, to keep the Tories in power.
“We are being made to pay. I have no doubt the DUP bring influence in all these issue, despite the fact that the confidence agreement was not supposed to be about these issues. But clearly it is. The DUP and the Tories are a toxic partnership.”
Her comments came as the supreme court narrowly dismissed a legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s tough abortion laws, saying there was no jurisdiction to consider the latest case because there was no actual or potential victim of an unlawful act involved in it.
A majority of judges, however, added that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was incompatible with the right to respect for private and family life as guaranteed by the European convention on human rights.
In the wake of the referendum in Ireland, which was won decisively in favour of the right to abortion, momentum has been growing for reform north of the border, as well as from MPs in Westminster.
Bradley, and Penny Mordaunt, the minister for women and equalities, back a change in the law in Northern Ireland. Bradley told the Commons, however, that it could not be imposed from Westminster.
The Labour MP Stella Creasy, who met O’Neill on Thursday, has pushed for a repeal to parts of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which makes it a crime for any woman to cause her own abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act exempted women in England, Wales and Scotland, but the restrictions still 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 that criminalise abortion, a move backed by several key women’s charities, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
O’Neill said she would back Creasy’s bid to repeal parts of the 1861 act, given that the law was made in Westminster, but she was cautious about any other steps that would have an impact on devolution. “I firmly support that as the first stage to reform in the north. I can be comfortable with Westminster repealing a Westminster law, I’m OK with that but I don’t want to see Westminster impose a solution on us,” she said.
O’Neill said Bradley “seemed to be sympathetic” and said she and May were feeling pressure about the issue. “But she gave no guarantees or proposals. There was nothing concrete from what she said.”