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Theresa May refusing to push for abortion reform in Northern Ireland amid DUP pressure

Prime minister likely to insist matter should be decided in Belfast - not Westminster

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Sunday 27 May 2018 11:35 BST
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Irish abortion referendum: The moment it was announced Ireland voted 66% in favour of repealing the eighth amendment

Theresa May is under pressure to give MPs a free vote on legalising abortion in Northern Ireland after the Republic of Ireland voted comprehensively in favour of reform.

The prime minister is facing calls from within her Cabinet to scrap the ban on abortion and bring it in line with the rest of the UK.

It creates a fresh headache for Ms May, whose parliamentary majority relies on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is fiercely anti-abortion.

However, the prime minister is believed to consider the matter an issue for the Northern Irish assembly, which has been without a government since January 2017 after power-sharing collapsed.

A referendum in the Republic of Ireland on Friday saw 66.4 per cent of voters back overturning the country’s abortion ban.

Abortion is currently only legal in Northern Ireland if the life or mental health of the mother is at risk.

Among those now pushing for reform of the law are understood to be Penny Morduant, the international development secretary, who also holds the women and equalities brief.

Ms Morduant called the Irish vote a "historic and great day for Ireland" and a "hopeful one for Northern Ireland".

"That hope must be met," she added.

Reports suggest she has the support of several other former cabinet ministers, including Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening and Maria Miller. All have previously held the women and equalities role.

Ms Morgan called the result of the Irish referendum "a huge milestone in the history of the Republic of Ireland and, I believe, the right decision".

Ms Rudd added: “Well done the voters of Ireland.”

However, the DUP are certain to strongly resist any plans to give MPs a free vote on the issue.

One of the party’s MPs, Ian Paisley, said: “Northern Ireland should not be bullied into accepting abortion on demand.

“Northern Ireland did not have a constitutional imperative on abortion, it is governed by laws that can be changed.

"The settled will of the people has been to afford protections to the unborn life and protect the life of the mother," he said.

Irish abortion referendum: Celebrations at Dublin count centre as results come in

Ms May could face pressure to allow her MPs a free vote on an amendment tabled to the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill by Labour MP Stella Creasy.

Ms Creasy claims more than 140 parliamentarians have already pledged their support.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable also backed reform and said the prime minister should act in the absence of the devolved government in Belfast, which has been suspended since early last year as the parties struggle to reach an agreement.

He said: "The position in Northern Ireland is now highly anomalous and I think, probably, action will now have to be taken."

Asked if Mrs May should intervene, he said: "Since there is, effectively, direct rule from Westminster, the Government has responsibility and it can and should take the opportunity to deal with this issue properly."

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