John Hayes is a former Minister of State who served in six departments, and is MP for South Holland and the Deepings.
The Good Friday Agreement settled the matter of who exercises power in Northern Ireland and how they are held to account. It made clear that a range of matters affecting the province should be for the people of Ulster and those they elect to agree.
In that spirit, decisions about the provision of abortion in Northern Ireland are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement cemented an arrangement in place ever since 1921. However, by means of a Ten Minute Rule Bill to be debated next Tuesday, Diana Johnson and others want to exploit the current political discord in Northern Ireland to impose changes to abortion law in the Province. Regardless of our individual views on abortion, this proposal has far-reaching and damaging constitutional implications and must be resisted.
Were Westminster to force such a change on Northern Ireland, we would effectively be saying we know better than the people of the province and their elected representatives. This would be the height of arrogance. Critically, it also would undermine the whole devolution settlement. The repercussions of doing so would be felt not only in Northern Ireland, but also in the other devolved administrations, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. No wonder the SNP (whatever their individual views about this particular issue) have warned against overruling the devolution settlement.
In 2016, MLAs debated Northern Ireland’s current abortion law, and a clear majority voted not to change it in any way. Northern Ireland therefore has an abortion law with the most recent democratic mandate of all the legal frameworks within the United Kingdom. Any tampering with abortion law in the province by Westminster MPs would be in violation of this, and would fail to recognise that a clear majority of Northern Ireland’s MPs and indeed, almost all of those who take their seats in Westminster, oppose allowing widespread access to abortion in the province. For MPs to vote to change abortion laws in Northern Ireland would be wholly undemocratic, when so many of us at Westminster simply cannot claim to represent or speak for people there.
And it is not just the politicians in Northern Ireland who don’t want change. Polling last week shows that 64 per cent of people in Northern Ireland don’t think MPs from outside Northern Ireland should decide this issue for them.
Recognising the importance of respecting the Belfast Agreement, devolution and the political and social consequences of undermining this settlement, the British Government has repeatedly and recently confirmed that abortion law has long been a devolved matter and should stay that way.
On June 5, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was very clear in the House of Commons when she said: “Abortion has been a devolved matter in Northern Ireland since it was created in 1921, and it would not be appropriate for Westminster to seek to impose its will, or to be the arbiter of an issue that has long been devolved to the people of Northern Ireland. The Government believe that the question of any future reform in NI must be debated and decided by the people of Northern Ireland and their locally elected, and their accountable, politicians.” She made a similar comment more recently in the House of Commons on September 5.
So, abortion law provision in Northern Ireland is not a matter on which the Westminster Government should intervene. It has, rightly, long been a devolved matter which locally accountable politicians in Northern Ireland should have the opportunity to debate and consider. The constitutional implications of UK MPs interfering with this long-established principle would be far-reaching and profound – indeed, reaching far beyond this particular issue. The UK Government’s stated priority is to help restore the devolved government in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity.
If we respect devolution, we have a duty to respect – whatever our own views on this particular matter – the right of the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide for itself and its people what abortion provision looks like there. If we truly respect the integrity of the devolution settlement, we must resist Johnson’s attempt to impose such a change. It would set a dangerous constitutional precedent. The Prime Minister said in June: ‘My preferred option is for it to be dealt with and addressed by those people who are elected politicians in and elected as accountable politicians in Northern Ireland.’ It is their responsibility, not ours, to legislate on devolved matters such as this.
Johnson’s Bill is contrary to the Prime Minister’s pledge; contrary to Government policy; and contrary to the constitutional settlement established by the Belfast Agreement – which is why all MPs who respect good governance should vote against the Ten Minute Rule Bill next Tuesday.