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British government to intervene in bid to end Northern Ireland abortion stand-off

Abortion laws in the region were liberalised by MPs at Westminster in 2019.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis
Image: Niall Carson via PA Images

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT will take legislative action later in a bid to end a stand-off over commissioning abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis is set to lay a regulation at Westminster giving him the power to direct the region’s health department to commission the services.

He is expected to outline his position in a written ministerial statement this afternoon.

The move comes 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.

In the absence of fully commissioned services being available, 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 Féin, must agree to it.

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

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

There will be no parliamentary debate on the government move today.

MPs and Lords will instead convene to decide whether to approve the intervention in the coming weeks.

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