Boris Johnson accused of using abortion rights in Northern Ireland as 'bargaining chip' to get DUP to back Brexit deal

Stella Creasy claims ministers have launched new bid to restore Northern Irish government in attempt to block legalisation of abortion

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Thursday 17 October 2019 12:30 BST
Stella Creasy leads emergency debate in Parliament on Northern Ireland abortion laws

Labour MP Stella Creasy has accused the government of using abortion rights as a "bargaining chip" to try to persuade the DUP to back Boris Johnson's Brexit deal.

Ms Creasy claimed ministers had launched a new bid to override a law legalising abortion in Northern Ireland as part of their efforts to convince Arlene Foster's party to support the Brexit agreement.

The UK and EU agreed a deal on Thursday but the DUP announced within minutes that it could not support the plan.

Earlier this year, Ms Creasy led a successful attempt to pass legislation extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland.

The change is due to come into effect next March but only if the devolved government in Northern Ireland has not been restored by 21 October. Abortion law is a devolved matter but the Northern Irish government collapsed in January 2017.

Ms Creasy claimed that the government was ramping up efforts to restore power-sharing in an attempt to stop abortion rights being extended to the region.

The DUP is strongly opposed to abortion and has blocked previous moves to legalise the procedure in Northern Ireland.

On Monday, Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland secretary, posted a video on Twitter saying that "church leaders, community groups and citizens" were "really worried" about the reforms. He said he was working hard to hand control of the issue back to Stormont.

Speaking in the Commons, Ms Creasy said: "I am disappointed that [Mr Smith] is not here, because I had hoped that he would account for his words on Twitter. I had hoped that he would account for his words because he said something very powerful and threatening.

"He said that he understood that church leaders were worried about abortion reform and that he would be 'working all week…to ensure that I do everything I can to encourage political leaders to get back into an executive and ensure that they can shape the abortion laws for Northern Ireland.”

She added: "People might think that that is a worthy sentiment, but given that if the [Northern Ireland] Assembly is reconstituted by Monday, the regulations on same-sex marriage will also fall, it is telling that he highlighted only abortion. Only women’s rights have become a bargaining chip in the Brexit process."

Writing on Twitter, she added: "So that’s deal government has done to get [DUP] support this week- they are going to wash their hands of responsibility to regulate abortion in Northern Ireland. It’s not in law they can whatever they say. Shameful using women as bargaining chips!"

Responding for the government in the Commons, Robin Walker, the Northern Ireland minister, dismissed suggestions that the new attempts to restore the government at Stormont were linked to the DUP's support for a Brexit deal.

He said: "The government have always been clear that we want to see devolved government restored and that this deadline set out in the Act of the 21st would be when legislation would have to be brought forward if the [Northern Irish] Executive were not in place. Of course it is right that we are engaging with the parties—as I suspect any government of any colour would be doing—to try to restore the Executive and Assembly, and we should continue to do that right up to the deadline."

Mr Walker said the UK government extending abortion to Northern Ireland "would not be a good outcome", adding: “One only has to look at the passionate and sincere demonstrations in recent weeks on both sides of this issue to appreciate that this remains a highly sensitive matter in Northern Ireland.

“I understand that there are many people in Northern Ireland who may welcome the change. There are also many who would not. I would prefer, and the government would prefer, that the Northern Ireland assembly was considering reforms of Northern Ireland’s abortion law.”

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