MPs back bid to force government to reform abortion and marriage laws in Northern Ireland

 'People in Northern Ireland need to hear that their lives are not going to be the casualty of the chaos we're seeing right now'

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 24 October 2018 20:22 BST
MPs back bid to force government to reform abortion and marriage laws in Northern Ireland

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MPs have backed a bid that would ramp up pressure on the government to reform abortion and gay marriage laws in Northern Ireland.

Cheers rang out as politicians voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Labour amendment that would force the government to monitor human rights compliance in Northern Ireland over same-sex marriage and terminations, both of which are matters devolved to Stormont.

The bid, led by Stella Creasy and Labour MP Conor McGinn, was approved by 207 votes to 117, as part of an emergency bill to restore stability to the region's public services.

It piles further pressure on Theresa May to act over strict abortion laws in Northern Ireland, and comes only a day after a string of Tory minister broke ranks to back a backbench bill that would legalise terminations in the region.

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning executive since power-sharing collapsed last year, forcing ministers to fast-track legislation through the Commons while politicians at Stormont try to resolve their differences.

The new Northern Ireland bill, which sets out how the country is run without a government, will make it harder for Westminster to stand back from reforming the ban on terminations and same-sex marriage.

Laws created in Westminster are having a direct impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland, as women who have been raped could face longer prison sentences than their attackers and gay couples do not have the right to equal marriage in 2018, Ms Creasy said.

She told MPs: “This amendment would not create a new law in Northern Ireland but what it would do is recognise that there are thousands of people in Northern Ireland whose lives right now are affected by two key human rights issues.

“They are human rights issues because they are issues on which our courts are currently discussing, ruling and indeed appealing.

“They refer in particular to the right of somebody to be able to marry who they love and the right of women to have bodily autonomy.”

Some 28 women a week are travelling to England to access terminations on the NHS, a process the Supreme Court deemed “cruel and degrading treatment of our own citizens”, she said, while 84 couples had civil partnerships last year rather than getting married.

Ms Creasy urged MPs not to "use devolution as a decoy for a denial of their human rights", adding: "People in Northern Ireland need to hear that their lives are not going to be the casualty of the chaos we're seeing right now in Northern Ireland."

Tory MP Anna Soubry also spoke in support, saying: "All it means is somewhere in the region of 28 women every week have to come to England and Wales, so the laws are not working in any event.

"It just makes it even more barbaric because women have to travel to exercise the same rights that my constituents have."

However Fiona Bruce, a pro-life Conservative MP, said it was inappropriate to add the amendment to an emergency bill as it had the "potential to undermine devolution" as both matters are reserved to Stormont.

She added: “We must respect the 2016 decision by the Assembly, we must respect the fact that many people in Northern Ireland don’t want to see these changes and they certainly don’t want to see changes brought forward as a result of potentially guidelines being made by the secretary of state here with all the implications that could involve.”

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, one of Theresa May's DUP allies, also hit out at the plans, describing the move as a "means to an end" to decriminalise abortion.

Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley said she did not want to bring in the bill but she had been left with no choice as the people of Northern Ireland “have suffered for too long without a government”.

She said allowing civil servants such power “totally contrary” to the rule of law and tried to dissuade MPs from backing the bill.

“I well understand why MPs want to see change in this area, I have great sympathy with that but this is not the way to do it," she said.

Following the vote, Richard Bentley, Marie Stopes UK's managing director, said: "We are heartened by this show of solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland. For too long they have been treated as second-class citizens, with women and girls denied healthcare in breach of their human rights.

"This amendment is a significant step forward on the path to equality, holding Westminster accountable for monitoring and addressing these issues, and giving guidance to civil servants in Northern Ireland on the issue of abortion."

The bill was given its third reading and will now go to the Lords for further scrutiny.

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