I am writing to update you on the issue of abortion law in Northern Ireland, following the recent referendum in Ireland, which voted in favour of repealing the eighth amendment.
As you will be aware, there have been calls for the UK Government to act in the absence of a devolved Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland.
I want to take this opportunity to set out a number of important points on the issue of abortion law in Northern Ireland, following the significant moment we witnessed in Ireland.
First, it’s important to be clear that the referendum was specific to Ireland, where a change to their written constitution requires a referendum. The referendum now allows for legislation amending Ireland’s abortion law to be debated and passed through both Houses of the Oireachtas.
This was a referendum which was decided by the people of Ireland and is now to be taken forward by the Irish Government. It is clearly a matter for them and has no bearing on the law in Northern Ireland.
That said, the result of the Irish referendum has undoubtedly reinvigorated debate within Northern Ireland. It is also clear that abortion remains a highly sensitive issue, regardless of where your view lies. It is important, therefore, that this matter is considered with due care and sensitivity.
Here in the United Kingdom, the Government believes that any future reform in Northern Ireland must also be debated and decided by the people of Northern Ireland and their locally-elected politicians. Importantly, this is a view shared in Northern Ireland, where there is a cross-party, cross-community consensus that Westminster should not impose its will in this highly sensitive, devolved area.
This has been the position of successive UK Governments, both Conservative and Labour, which have never sought to change the law relating to abortion in Northern Ireland given the enormous sensitivities that this issue raises.
It is important to note, however, that the Government has acted in this area: since 29 June last year women from Northern Ireland have had access to free abortion procedures performed in England. This decision strikes an appropriate balance between respecting the devolution settlement, and supporting women from Northern Ireland access safe and affordable abortion services in England.
When the issue of abortion has been debated in this House it has been as a matter of conscience and has been conducted as a free vote; and the same applies in Northern Ireland.
Equally, there is no doubt that for many decades abortion law has been an extremely sensitive issue in Northern Ireland where there are many deeply and sincerely held views across all sides of the debate – just as there has been in this House.
What is clear however is that even amongst proponents of reform there is currently no consensus on what that reform should entail.
For example, there are those in favour of extending abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality – or in cases of rape and incest – but others who want to extend the laws that apply here to Northern Ireland. It is worth noting that when the Northern Ireland Assembly last considered reform of Northern Ireland’s abortion law, in February 2016, there was a cross-community majority against allowing abortions in case of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest.
There have also been calls from some to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 in order to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland. This would not, however, provide a satisfactory way forward, as it would leave a gap in the law, and without any new provisions it offers no safeguards for women. It would also have an impact on England and Wales, as well as in Northern Ireland.
The 1967 Abortion Act provides defences against the criminal law offences contained in the 1861 Act. If these offences were removed then abortion would in effect be decriminalised and no legal framework would be in place, including no gestational time limits. A new legal framework would be needed to replace those provisions, which is rightly a matter which locally accountable politicians in Northern Ireland should have the opportunity to debate and consider.
This Government, like its predecessors, believes that the best forum to debate and resolve these and many other matters is in a locally-elected Northern Ireland Assembly.
As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I want to ensure that any future reform is handled with due care and consideration – with locally elected and locally accountable politicians having the opportunity to consider and debate the issue, and for the people of Northern Ireland to have a direct say in the devolved issues that affect their lives.
Just as we have debated in this House the laws that ought to apply here, the democratically elected Assembly in Northern Ireland must continue to consider this fundamental issue, listening to the views of the people of Northern Ireland.
My focus therefore remains on working closely with Northern Ireland’s political parties to restore strong, inclusive devolved government at the earliest opportunity: this is what the Northern Ireland public wants.
I also want to continue to hear from those in civil society, on all sides of the debate, as I am deeply sympathetic to the cases being debated.
I hope this update is helpful. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions.