Westminster politicians are looking to give new powers to the Northern Ireland Secretary to force the Province to expand its existing abortion services.
Abortion was made legal in Northern Ireland in March last year and services have been set up by individual NHS trusts. But full nationwide services – as laid out by Westminster in its abortion regulations – have not yet been commissioned.
Minister of Health Robin Swann says the controversial matter must be discussed and agreed by the Executive. But pro-abortion activists are putting pressure on the UK Government to bypass Stormont and force compliance with the unwanted regulations.
The Executive voted in favour of a motion which rejected the imposition of the abortion laws on the province back in June. While this did not alter the law, it made clear to Westminster that the regulations are not wanted in Northern Ireland.
Abortion is a devolved matter
However, the UK Government is now considering giving Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis new powers as early as next week to direct the NI Department of Health to commission more abortion facilities – a move the DUP has said it will “vigorously oppose”.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, who leads the party at Westminster, said: “Abortion is a devolved matter. Any move by an NIO minister to legislate over the head of the Northern Ireland Executive would raise serious questions about when and in what areas the Government can make interventions in a devolved administration.
“The DUP would warn the Northern Ireland Office against legislating on a matter which is wholly devolved and we will vigorously oppose such steps.”
Mr Donaldson also pointed out that the original regulations were passed during the breakdown in power-sharing at Stormont and would not have been voted through by MLAs.
He said that he and party leader Arlene Foster had met with the Northern Ireland Secretary and had “underscored that this matter rests with the Health Minister Robin Swann and the Government should leave it with the devolved structures to make such decisions”.
A spokesperson for the NI Department of Health said: “The Health Minister has maintained that the commissioning of abortion services is controversial, cross cutting and outwith the Programme for Government.
“He does not believe that a ministerial decision to commission and fund abortion services would be defensible in court in the absence of Executive approval.”
Part of the Westminster-imposed regulations is already in the process of being rolled back.
The Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, put forward by Paul Givan MLA, seeks to outlaw abortion on the basis of so-called ‘severe’ disabilities, including conditions such as Down’s syndrome.
Earlier this week, it passed its second stage by 48 votes to 12.