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Human rights campaigners lose Supreme Court appeal over Northern Irish abortion laws

However, the judges said that when it comes to fatal foetal abnormality, NI abortion law is not compatible with human rights laws.

Image: PA Archive/PA Images

THE NORTHERN IRELAND Human Rights Commission has lost its Supreme Court appeal over the country’s abortion laws.

At the UK’s Supreme Court today, the judges said they had come to a majority view that the commission does not have the standing to bring the proceedings.

However they also came to a majority view that the law on abortion in Northern Ireland insofar as it relates to fatal foetal abnormality is not compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on human rights and fundamental freedoms.

By a smaller majority they also found the law not compatible with Article 8 in cases of rape and incest.

However, these decisions regarding the law not being compatible are not binding.

Lord Kerr said that they are “not binding but worthy of close consideration by those in whose power it lies for the laws to be altered”.

The minority on this point – two judges – did not positively say that the present law is compatible with the ECHR but the form of the proceedings did not allow them to conclude it was not.

The challenge brought by the human rights group alleged that current abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with EU human rights laws in the cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

The Attorney General of Northern Ireland had raised the preliminary issue of whether the commission had the power to bring this sort of challenge before the courts.

The seven Supreme Court justices last October heard the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) claim that the current situation criminalised “exceptionally vulnerable” women.

The court heard today that “three enormously brave women gave unsparing accounts of having to deal with a pregnancy where they knew their baby was doomed to die either shortly after birth or before birth”.

Speaking outside the Supreme Court, a spokesperson for the NIHRC said:

“This issue is not going to go away. Ireland is about to reform its law on abortion and therefore it will remain in the public eye in the months to come. It’s time we in Northern Ireland looked at our abortion laws and made sure that they are human rights compliant.”

Asked what the next step would be, he said:

“Take stock, reflect on the judgement, see what is happening politically, politics is not a matter for us. See what the options are and take the matter from there.”

He said that “women’s voices have to be heard” on the issue.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said this afternoon:

“I think that’s something that really should be decided by the people who live in Northern Ireland and ultimately if we had an Assembly up and running that could be determined and you could have a vote in the Assembly. It really emphasises more and more why we need an Assembly up and running again in Northern Ireland.”

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that the issue is a “deeply sensitive subject” and that he welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the NIHCR not having any standing to take the case.

He continued:

We will carefully consider the views outlined by the learned Judges on both sides in each of the divided opinions issued by the Supreme Court today. These reflect the divided views in Northern Ireland and it is important that political parties engage with civil society on these issues. We have sought to find a way forward in relation to pregnancies with lethal abnormalities and proposed establishing an expert working group. We will continue our work on this and the other related matters.
This is a devolved matter and any attempt to change the law without the consent of the Assembly would be a breach of the devolution settlement. We welcome the clear position taken by the Government in respecting the right of the Assembly to legislate on abortion, reflecting the will of the people of Northern Ireland.

He concluded: “Sinn Fein should now join with the other parties in Northern Ireland and immediately restore the Executive and allow local legislators to consider issues such as abortion. It is Sinn Fein alone who are preventing the Assembly from addressing such sensitive and important matters.”

Donaldson said that the DUP stands ready to enter an Executive “with no-preconditions” and that if the Secretary of State will convene a meeting of the Assembly the party will appoint Ministers to take on the responsibilities that its mandate has given it. “The people of Northern Ireland have waited long enough.”

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