In recent days there has been a concerted effort on the part of some parliamentarians to argue that Westminster should legislate to override the devolution settlement and introduce widespread access to abortion in Northern Ireland. I am writing to ask you to respect the principle and spirit of devolution and ensure that the people of Northern Ireland through their elected representatives get to decide on what law and policy should apply in that jurisdiction.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley MP, said the following on the 10th of May, in response to a question from Stella Creasy MP:
"The hon. Lady knows that abortion is a very sensitive issue, and there are strongly held views on both sides of the debate. It is also a devolved matter, as she has said. She refers to the fact that I am on record as saying that a vote on same-sex marriage, among Government Members, is a matter of conscience, and that is also true for abortion. But it would not be right for the UK Government to undermine the devolution settlement by trying to force on the people of Northern Ireland something that we in Westminster think is right; the people of Northern Ireland have to make that decision.”
The Secretary of State is right. If the British Parliament intervenes in this matter it would be undermining the devolution settlement. I further welcome the comments of the Prime Minister’s spokesperson on her behalf: “it’s important to recognise that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to their own process, which is run by locally elected politicians.” If Westminster does decide to legislate in this area, on what principled basis can they refuse to legislate in other areas of contention in Northern Ireland? Either you have devolution or you do not. It would not be right to selectively override aspects of the devolution settlement simply because Westminster disagrees with the policy in operation in another part of the United Kingdom.
Contrary to the assertions of some, there is no human right to abortion. The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal, the highest court based in Northern Ireland, made this clear in a judgment they released in 2017. There is no basis in human rights law for the British Parliament to intervene.
It is also worth noting that the Northern Ireland Assembly has considered the issue of abortion much more recently than any other parliament in the United Kingdom. In 2016, a clear majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly, including both Unionists and Nationalists, upheld the law on abortion as it currently stands.
There have been calls for a referendum in Northern Ireland on the question of abortion. I would respectfully ask you to oppose any attempt to have a referendum on this issue in Northern Ireland. Referendums in the United Kingdom have only been utilised for major constitutional issues. Never before in the United Kingdom has a referendum been used to consider an issue of policy in this way. Unlike in the Republic of Ireland, where a referendum was required to amend the Irish constitution, there is no requirement for a referendum to take place to consider this matter. There is no principled reason to allow a referendum on this issue and then to deny one on other issues of concern in Northern Ireland.
I do recognise that the Northern Ireland Executive is currently not in operation. However, rather than seeking to impose a legislative framework in Northern Ireland, the British Parliament should re-double its efforts to see the Northern Ireland Assembly return so that the Assembly can deliberate on this matter and decide what the best way forward is for that part of the United Kingdom. I do not believe the Government should bluntly step into a sensitive issue at a difficult time for Northern Ireland’s politics.
I am asking you to make representations to the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley MP, asking them to oppose any moves to override the devolution settlement and focus their efforts on helping enable the return of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I look forward to your reply.