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Presbyterian Church in Ireland calls on Secretary of State not to impose new abortion laws

by Chantalle Edmunds

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has called on the Secretary of State to step back from imposing abortion laws in Northern Ireland descibing the regulations as "ill-considered and irresponsible."

In a statement, Presbyterian Moderator, Right Reverend Dr David Bruce said, "As a Church with a strong pro-life position, we have put on record our total opposition to the imposition of abortion laws in Northern Ireland.  Such laws have removed protection from the lives of unborn children. On Friday we spoke of our grave concern at news the Secretary for State was seeking powers to implement these laws over and above the heads of locally elected representatives by directing Northern Ireland's Department of Health. These radical, and unreasonably sweeping powers, go much further than we had been led to believe would be the case."

On Tuesday, The Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, laid out regulations at Westminster that would give him the ability to compel the region's health department to commission new abortion services.

He urged Stormont ministers to take action on rolling out the services in the region before he steps in to order it. He will assume the power to do so when the regulations come into force on March 31. Mr Lewis expressed hope progress could be made on the long-delayed central commissioning of services without him having to use new powers to direct the devolved administration to act on the issue.

Dr Bruce's statement went on to accuse the Northern Ireland Secretary of riding roughshod over local decision making:

"Far from working hard to encourage the building of consensus around highly contentious issues, the regulations laid before Parliament today drive a coach and horses through Northern Ireland's hard won and finely balanced devolved constitutional settlement. These powers not only devalue Northern Ireland's purposely unique system of negotiated government, they also give the Secretary of State the freedom to interfere directly, and at will, with every single department of devolved government in Northern Ireland. For instance, the Secretary of State is seeking to be able to unilaterally direct what should happen in Northern Ireland's schools, taking local power and decision making away from governors, teachers and parents on sensitive issues, therefore undermining the right of schools to embrace a particular ethos."

"The Secretary of State should withdraw the regulations, and if not, Members of Parliament should refuse to grant him the powers that he seeks," the Moderator concluded.

The Government's intervention on delayed abortion services came ahead of a legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission over the ongoing failure to make terminations widely available in the region.

Abortion laws in the region were liberalised by MPs at Westminster in 2019 at a time when powersharing was collapsed.

New regulations came into operation a year ago and, while individual health trusts are offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services on a region-wide basis.

The law changes enable terminations in all circumstances during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy with abortion legal in other circumstances up to 24 weeks and beyond that for cases of non-fatal fetal disabilities and fatal fetal abnormalities.

However, in practice, fully commissioned services aren't currently available and women from Northern Ireland are still travelling to England to access abortions.

Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann has maintained he cannot commission services without the approval of the wider five-party coalition Executive, insisting it is his legal responsibility to refer controversial or significant decisions to the other ministers.

However, for such an issue to secure Executive approval, both of the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, must agree to it.

The anti-abortion DUP has to date blocked Mr Swann's proposal.

The DUP has warned that an intervention by the Government would represent a breach of the devolution settlement for Northern Ireland and have "serious consequences" for the future operation of Stormont.

DUP leader and Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster has criticised the Government's intervention: "The action that's been taken today by the Secretary of State is, from our perspective, very much overreach into a devolved space," she told reporters at Stormont.

"It is up to the devolved administration how they deal with these issues and therefore he is acting beyond what he should be doing. He will, of course, say that he's acting under Westminster legislation, that's why he's taking the action that he is.

"The action that he takes today, by way of written ministerial statement and the laying of regulations, does not change what happens in Northern Ireland overnight.

"There is now a period of time where those regulations sit and it's not until they're affirmed by Parliament that he is given the power to direct the Health Minister here in Northern Ireland.

"So nothing changes overnight but our view is very clearly that the Secretary of State should not be overreaching into the devolved space," she added.

Northern Ireland's deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill predicted the abortion issue will "come to a head" at Thursday's meeting of the Stormont Executive.

"I think that one year after the legislation has been passed, I think it's so unfair that women have been denied access to modern and compassionate healthcare services," said the Sinn Fein vice president.

"The Department of Health have still not commissioned the services that women are entitled to."

Additional reporting by PA

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