Arlene Foster claimed republican voters had been in contact in the wake of Ireland’s landslide referendum decriminalising terminations, saying they now want to back the DUP as “the only party that supports the unborn”.
The comments were dismissed by Sinn Fein which is considering reforming its approach to abortion in the light of the referendum, but they also carried a clear message for Theresa May in London.
The prime minister is under pressure to intervene in Northern Ireland to relax abortion laws, but in doing so would risk a backlash from the DUP whose MPs are propping up her government in Westminster.
In an interview broadcast on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Ms Foster said there were people across Northern Ireland who “who feel so very strongly about this issue that they will cast their vote on that basis”.
She said: “I have had emails from people in the Republic of Ireland feeling very disenfranchised about what has happened in the Republic of Ireland.
“I have had emails from nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland not quite believing what is going on and saying they will be voting for the DUP because they believe we are the only party that supports the unborn.”
Some 66.4 per cent of Irish voters in May’s referendum in Ireland backed the repeal of the controversial eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which bans abortion in all but exceptional circumstances.
But Ms Forster criticised some of the celebrations by those who supported the repeal, saying she found it “quite distasteful to see people dancing about on the streets”.
Sinn Fein currently only supports abortion in extreme cases, like foetal abnormality, but is due to consider whether it should now support unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks at its conference later this month.
A cross-party group of Westminster politicians is also pushing for London to intervene to relax abortion laws in Northern Ireland, by repealing the Offences against the Person Act 1861.
Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, who backs the move, told the Andrew Marr Show, that the current law placed women in the same category as rapists.
She said: “The [Offences against the Person Act] puts abortion in the same category as rape, child stealing and using gun powder to blow people up.
“What that means is that right now in Northern Ireland, where there are no exemptions to this law, if you are raped and you become pregnant as a result of that rape, and you seek a termination, you would face a longer prison sentence than the person who attacked you.”
She argued that reform from Westminster would still be respectful of devolution, because it is about repealing a piece of UK legislation rather than intervening directly in any Northern Irish regulation.
Ms Creasy also criticised Ms Foster for saying she found celebrations of the referendum win “distasteful”, saying: “I would suggest that somebody who intends to go and march with the Orange Order in Fife at the end of this month may want to reflect on the value of making comments about other people’s protests and decisions to join people.”
But Ms May is unlikely to give whole-hearted support to intervention in Northern Ireland, because her fragile administration depends on the support of the 10 DUP MPs.
The devolved Stormont assembly has not sat for months following a row between the DUP and Sinn Fein over a botched green energy scheme, but Downing Street is desperate to restore the assembly so that it can deal with this issue in Belfast.
No 10 has repeatedly said that any reform in Northern Ireland “is an issue for Northern Ireland”. A source said the row “shows one of the important reasons we need a functioning executive back up and running”.
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