Lib Dem MPs support abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland

Three Liberal Democrat MPs took part in yesterday’s Commons debate on giving women in Northern Ireland access to legal and safe abortions without having to travel. The recent vote to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution, paving the way for legislation allowing abortion up to 12 weeks in Ireland and the provisions of the 1967 Act in the rest of the UK. The issue has been devolved to the Northern Ireland assembly since 2003, but that Assembly is not currently sitting. The Irish referendum and a UN report from earlier this year which stated that:

the situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment

surely makes it vital that MPs are given a chance to find a way to give women in Northern Ireland the same rights that the rest as other UK citizens. The DUP argues for Northern Ireland to be treated in the same way as the rest of the UK in Brexit negotiations but will not hear of Northern Irish being given the same rights as other women in the UK.

As a Scot, I believe in devolution of power. I was glad to see abortion devolved to Holyrood in the 2015 Scotland Act because I saw it as an opportunity for us to lead the way on making the law more modern. My instinctive reaction when the Westminster Parliament seeks to interfere in devolved matters is to tell it to get lost. I also believe very strongly in a woman’s right to choose.

For me, the Northern Irish issue is one of human rights and so I think that the Westminster Parliament has a duty to act to ensure that women in Northern Ireland have the same rights as those in Ireland and the UK. Many MPs pointed out how difficult it is for women to travel. If they can afford it, they face a long journey while in physical and emotional pain. If they can’t afford it, or are in an abusive relationship, they are forced to continue with unwanted pregnancies. Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP for Glasgow Central rightly pointed out the impossible position that women faced with the benefit cap or two child limit face.

Christine Jardine tackled the devolution issue head-on and stated that her position was to support the rights of the women in Northern Ireland to access abortion:

I, too, thank the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and everyone who supported her in securing this debate. It is of vital importance, not in a party political sense—or any political sense—but in a human rights sense. Two issues are involved here. The first is that it is simply appalling in 2018 that abortion is still treated as a criminal issue, rather than a medical one. More than 100 years—only just more—after women were given the vote, we are here debating an Act from 1861 when not only was it all men in the Chamber who decided, but it was all men who voted for all the men in the Chamber to decide. The other issue is that even now women in Northern Ireland are the only women in the UK who are denied a fundamental human right: the right to choose—the right to control their own bodies.

I have heard the debate about devolution. Even as someone who has campaigned consistently for devolution and whose party has campaigned tirelessly for it, I cannot find myself supporting that argument. I listened to what the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) had to say, but then I listened to what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said and thought, “If I were one of those women sitting at home listening to us today, what would matter to me more: devolution and a political principle; or my human rights?” The answer would be my human rights and my right to choose. It would be my daughter’s human rights, my niece’s human rights and the human rights of every woman I know above a political principle.

If that is not enough, perhaps we should look at what the legislation says, because human rights are not devolved. There is a precedent from 2007. When the DUP blocked the EU gender directive, Westminster stepped in and intervened. Legislation also gives the UK Parliament responsibility for meeting international obligations such as United Nations treaties ratified by the UK. UN bodies have found that Northern Ireland abortion law is incompatible with human rights treaties ratified by this Parliament. That is also the view of Amnesty International, which has said:

“Northern Ireland laws have been repeatedly found by UN treaty monitoring bodies to be in significant violation of the various human rights treaties the UK is state party to.”

We are not trying to usurp the rights of the Stormont Parliament; it is not sitting at the moment: we are simply trying to establish the rights of women throughout the UK, to put those rights on an equal footing, and to give every woman the choice. If we repealed sections 58 and 59, the Parliament in Northern Ireland would, as we have heard, be able to decide for itself how to proceed. I give my complete support to today’s debate, not just for myself, but for those women who have a right—a human right—and for our children throughout the UK. I want them all to be on an equal footing.

Earlier, Wera Hobhouse had made underlined this point:

Just to be absolutely clear, does the hon. Lady agree that repealing the provisions in the 1861 Act allows us to adhere to the devolution settlements and to respect women’s right to choose? They are not contradictory.

She later intervened on the DUP’s Sammy Donaldson:

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that people who, like me, would never have an abortion support the right for women to choose? It is not for us here to make that decision; it is for the individual to make that very personal decision.

Jo Swinson said that we shouldn’t be policing women’s bodies, but giving them access to medical care:

We heard earlier from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) about the devolution of policing issues to Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that the fact that we are talking about policing women’s bodies is part of the whole problem? That is not the right context for this debate. Supporting women to take these decisions is a health matter and a medical matter, and no woman takes this decision lightly.

This Friday it’s a year since Wera, Jo, Christine (and Layla) were elected to Parliament. What a difference they have made. Jo has her record in Government and her ideas in her book Equal Power, Wera has her bill to outlaw upskirting, Layla has highlighted period poverty and Christine has made justice for women affected by State Pension inequality a key issue for her. They show why diversity is so important and why we must keep trying to make our group ever more representative.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • @Caron

    Two quotes from your article

    “”As a Scot, I believe in devolution of power. I was glad to see abortion devolved to Holyrood in the 2015 Scotland Act””

    “”For me, the Northern Irish issue is one of human rights and so I think that the Westminster Parliament has a duty to act””

    Unfortunately, this isn’t consistent, in fact these are contradictory positions.

    Supporting devolution (decentralisation of power) means you accept that the power may be used to make decisions different from what the centralised would have made. You accept that different laws and different executive decisions will be made in different parts of the country.

    Therefore, if you believe that there is only one correct fundamental position on abortion, (and that it is rooted in normative human rights), then it stands to reason that you don’t believe it should be a devolved matter (because devolution leads to a diversity of laws and executive decision)

    Whether Stormont was sitting or not, it would not pass a law legalising abortion (nor a referendum for Northern Ireland to decide). Imposing decisions from Westminster on a subject that is a settled devolved matter could well stir up even more tension in Northern Ireland. Still few people in the mainland grasp the fragile nature of the NI settlement, without the problems of Brexit/Irish border and now this abortion question. I appreciate some people see an opportunity to get an outcome on abortion that they want to see in NI, but this shouldn’t override “constitutional” and peace settlement arrangements

  • Sue Sutherland 6th Jun '18 - 11:20am

    I can still remember the great feeling of relief and a new freedom when David Steel’s bill was enacted. That and the introduction of the Pill laid the foundation for women to become equal with men. I was not brought up to believe that it was a woman’s human right to have control over her body, instead we had to bear the burden of sexual pleasure which men could experience without fear. Women died in back street abortions or saw the end of their hopes for a better future when an unplanned pregnancy ended their education. Or they and their babies suffered the pain and anguish of separation shortly after the birth. I can remember my mother warning me many times not to get pregnant and telling me with tears in her eyes that if I did she and my father would be forced to turn me out of the house.
    I am horrified that women in Northern Ireland are still suffering in this way 50 years after the rest of us were given freedom.

  • On monday the ‘Guardian’ ran the headline, “PM understood to have told MPs in private meeting that political climate makes reforms impossible”…..

    I wonder if Theresa May would be so reticent if her ‘hostages to fate’ weren’t the DUP?

  • As the father of four daughters, I fully understand and support what you say on this issue, Caron, and I see no contradiction whatsover in what you say.

    Human rights (as part of being a citizen of the United Kingdom ) should be supreme regardless of any form of devolution.

  • Andrew Tampion 6th Jun '18 - 5:45pm

    “As the father of four daughters, I fully understand and support what you say on this issue, Caron, and I see no contradiction whatsover in what you say.”

    In which case as James Pugh says why is abortion a devolved power?

    In any case if this is, as is claimed, a matter of Human Rights why not challenge the Northern Ireland Government under the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998?

  • @David Raw

    So would I be correct that you don’t believe abortion should be a devolved matter?

  • I don’t believe abortion should be a devolved matter. It is being challenged in the Belfast High Court under the Human Rights Act today.

  • @David Raw

    If you don’t believe it should be a devolved matter, I am sure you can therefore see the inconsistency I was referring to in my initial comment

  • Yeovil Yokel 7th Jun '18 - 11:40am

    John Innes – an unborn child does not have a ‘voice’, but neither does it have one for a long time after birth. It is the mother who is usually the main advocate for her offspring for up to several years after conception – which is surely as it should be? – and therefore it should be primarily her decision about whether or not to have an abortion, within the bounds of the law and informed by medical opinion. Otherwise, whose decision do you think it should be, who should be speaking up for the voiceless child?

  • nvelope2003 7th Jun '18 - 12:50pm

    David Raw: The law, which is fundamental to a civilized democratic society, cannot be compared to the number of angels who can stand on the head of a pin. This is a very difficult issue for some people and so is the NI peace settlement. Abortion will soon be available in Ireland.

  • @David Raw

    I can understand people’s motivations for trying to achieve this outcome in Northern Ireland.

    As with any outcome driven action, one must be very careful about unintended consequences. Very few mainlanders really understand the unique peculiarities of the way Northern Irish politics works (or more aptly doesn’t work), or indeed appreciate how fragile the settlement there really is on the ground (I personally loathe Brexiteers’ new found ideological fondness for claiming everything is robust and hunky dorey in NI and we mustn’t worry about the implications of an Irish border or wrecked Good Friday agreement).

    Imposing a referendum on NI from London has the very real possibility of backfiring. The hypothetical referendum campaign could well drive Irish Republicans of all shades but who don’t have strong feelings about abortion (which is most voters on most issues I should add) to vote No (or abstain) on grounds of the referendum in itself being a symbolic ruling from London. The Protestant churches (closely related with Unionism) still have a deep reach into Northern Irish society, and will for certain back No. And the dominant (i.e power holding) political party machinary in NI are opposed to abortion and will use their clout accordingly.

    Devolution has its disadvantages, but one advantage is that it does stop (well meaning) “outsiders” poking their noses into regional affairs when they don’t have a proper grasp of the nuances on the ground, and so stops potential messes being created. To me, the fact abortion is a devolved matter is ludicrous. But it is a devolved and is settled as such. Overriding this settled issue has the potential to do an enormous amount of harm unless done sensitively. I’d be very interested to hear Naomi Long’s view on this.

    I nodded along to everything Layla Moran said on every topic last Friday on Any Questions, with the exception of her very confidently saying London should overrule Stormont (albeit a dormant Stormont) and impose a referendum on NI on this issue. I found myself nodding along to Norman Lamont precise rebuttal to that very bad suggestion of hers.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Jun '18 - 6:03pm

    Though I understand the human rights argument and know which way I would vote, there is also the question of sovereignty of the Northern Ireland people. It is not okay to pay lip service to devolution and then when an important issue arises, say we know best. The people of Northern Ireland are well capable of making their own decision on this issue whether Stormont is suspended or not.

  • @ Peter Hirst So you value sticking to the rules of devolution when it conflicts with human rights ? That’s the political, and in my view, moral equivalent of computer says no.
    If for some reason the Northern Irish Assembly decided to reintroduce capital punishment in the Province what would your attitude be?

  • @David Raw

    But the subject of capital punishment is not a devolved matter in NI. But unfortunately abortion is. And since it is, and because of the shakiness of the settlement holding things together there, if it’s desired to change the status of abortion in NI, then it should be through the established devolved structures there. London just snapping its fingers and doing away with settled devolved areas is a really really terrible idea in my opinion, and is something few of the mainland really appreciate, possibly because they don’t understand how complex (and abnormal) politics is there (if you can call it politics at all). Am not saying people on the mainland can’t understand the issue there, I am saying few do.

    I am going to look for a contact method for Naomi Long (former Alliance MP, and leader of the Alliance Party in NI, which is our sister party for those unaware) to ask if she would be so kind as to write a short article for Lib Dem Voice on this subject. Again, she isn’t the definitive voice, but I suspect she has a much much better grasp of this than our MPs and our party’s opinion formers.

  • Andrew Tampion 9th Jun '18 - 7:15am

    David Raw. Assuming a case comes before the Supreme Court and assuming the Court then rules that some aspects of Northern Ireland current abortion law are not compatible with Human Rights Law then it is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly to amend the law in Northern Ireland to comply. Your argument ampounts to saying I believe in Devolutions as long as you never do anything that I personally don’t agree with.
    My answer to your question is if Capital Punishment is a devolved matter then the Northern Ireland Assembly is absolutely entitled to reintroduce it: subject to any Human Rights Law challenge. As Peter Hirst implies either you believe in devolution or you don’t.

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