Westminster will lift Northern Ireland's abortion ban if the north still has no government next month
Northern Irish political parties must “get on board” if they want to help shape abortion law reform, the secretary of state has said.
The exclusive comments come as the UK government vowed to repeal a 19th century law which criminalises abortion in Northern Ireland, and temporarily ban the arrest or prosecution of any woman accessing an illegal termination in the north.
In his first interview on the issues of abortion law reform and marriage equality since becoming Northern Ireland secretary, Julian Smith told JOE that the UK government was on track to legalise marriage equality in Northern Ireland next year.
The UK government minister also refused to be drawn on whether or not the UK government would accidentally bring a United Ireland closer if it crashed out of the European Union with no deal, if or when Brexit happens.
Northern Ireland has been without an Executive for 962 days, in what is understood to be a world record for the longest time a developed country has gone without a government. Any attempt to restore power through talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin, the two biggest parties in the north, have repeatedly failed. Since Stormont collapsed in 2017, Northern Ireland’s anti-abortion legislation and its ban on marriage equality has come under increasing public scrutiny in Ireland and the UK.
In July, British politicians passed a bill which would force the UK government to take steps to legalise marriage equality and decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland if power is not restored to Stormont before October 22.
On Wednesday night, the UK government published a report which confirmed that it would repeal an 1861 law which criminalises abortion on October 22 if Northern Ireland is still without a government. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which says an illegal abortion should carry a maximum life sentence, was replaced in England and Wales by a new abortion law in the 1960s, but it remains the current law in Northern Ireland today.
The British government also said it would bring in a “criminal moratorium” on the same date, which means that nobody could be arrested or prosecuted for accessing an illegal abortion in Northern Ireland. If it goes ahead, the moratorium will stop the upcoming trial of a mother who is facing prosecution for buying illegal abortion pills online for her teenage daughter.
“By the 22nd of October, if Stormont isn’t up and running the government has said it will legislate in this area,” Mr Smith told JOE.
He said that the UK government would then carry out a “consultation process” ahead of Westminster putting new abortion regulations being in place in Northern Ireland before the end of next March, if it still does not have its own government by then. Mr Smith said he did not want to influence that process by giving his personal view on the fact that women in Northern Ireland still need to travel to access a safe and legal abortion.
“We are currently in discussions with the various parties to get Stormont up and running, and that’s my priority. That’s a way that the Northern Ireland parties can influence things, because obviously this is a devolved matter. There has been a free vote in Westminster but if the Northern Ireland parties wish to influence how this progresses, we need to get them into the Executive,” Mr Smith said.
He said that the UK government has not yet considered what kind of abortion regulations would be in place in Northern Ireland if it remains without a devolved government. Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, told JOE last month that she had asked the British government to allow legal abortion up to 12 weeks in Northern Ireland, which would match the existing law in the Republic. In the rest of the UK, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks.
“On this key issue where there is such strong views in Northern Ireland ... the government position has always been that this is a devolved matter. I hope that people can come together to shape this in a way which fits the very strong views in Northern Ireland,” Mr Smith said.
The secretary of state added that “if Stormont doesn’t get up and running we need to consider all aspects of the abortion reform.”
“The important thing I think is to make sure first and foremost that we say to Northern Ireland politicians: please get on board, get into the Executive and influence this really sensitive matter,” he said.
Mr Smith appealed to the main parties to try to restore power before October 22 to “shape the right kind of policy for abortion reform, to ensure that that is done in a way that reflects the various views in Northern Ireland on this topic.”
He added that the UK government was going in a “direction of travel” which would also see marriage equality legalised in Northern Ireland next year, again through legislation passed from Westminster.
“Again, if Northern Ireland parties wish to influence that, that should be done under the umbrella of the Executive,” Mr Smith said.
The secretary of state declined to be drawn on claims that Brexit could be increasing the chance of a United Ireland.
Earlier this summer, the taoiseach warned that a no deal Brexit could pose a threat to the union. Speaking at the Glenties summer school in Donegal, Leo Varadkar said that “more and more people in Northern Ireland will come to question the union” in the event of the UK leaving the European Union without a deal.
Asked if he believed the British government could accidentally be bringing a United Ireland closer, Mr Smith said that securing a deal before leaving the EU was “the best solution for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.”
When pressed on the same question, Mr Smith said: “I think that the important thing is that I don’t believe that there is a demand for a border poll. I’ve answered the question on Brexit, I think it’s in Northern Ireland’s best interests - and I’m fighting to ensure, as is the Prime Minister - that we get a good deal for Northern Ireland, as we do for the rest of the UK.”