Labour MPs bid to force Government to act on abortion laws in Northern Ireland

Two Labour MPs will attempt to force the Government to act to reform abortion and marriage laws in Northern Ireland.

Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn have tabled an amendment to emergency legislation being pushed through Westminster in response to the region’s powersharing crisis.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley is fast-tracking law changes through the House of Commons as part of her efforts to bring a measure of stability to Stormont’s rudderless public services.

The legislation will give civil servants greater clarity over what decisions they can take in the ongoing absence of ministers; enable UK Government ministers to make a number of stalled public appointments; and remove a standing obligation on Mrs Bradley to call another snap Assembly election.

While the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill is designed to partly address the governance vaccuum created by the collapse of powersharing, and provide breathing space for the region’s rowing politicians to resume negotiations, Ms Creasy and Mr McGinn are hoping to use it as a vehicle to deliver wider social change.

Conor McGinn
Conor McGinn (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Their amendment seeks to force the Government, in the absence of devolved ministers, to act to reform Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws and end the region’s ban on same-sex marriage, insisting both run contrary to the human rights of local people.

Abortions in Northern Ireland are currently illegal in all but exceptional medical and mental health circumstances.

The Government has so far resisted pressure to step in to legislate for reform in the wake of a recent Supreme Court judgment that found the current legal framework incompatible with human rights laws.

While a majority of Assembly members backed an end to the same-sex marriage ban the last time it was voted on at Stormont, the Democratic Unionists triggered a contentious voting mechanism – a petition of concern – to effectively veto a law change.

Mrs Bradley has insisted the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage should be decided by devolved ministers.

Wednesday’s debate had also been set to witness a Brexit showdown over the contentious Irish border backstop.

However, a Conservative MP stepped back from a bid to table an amendment that, if passed, would have given the Stormont Assembly a veto on any backstop mechanism.

The EU and UK have both agreed to have a backstop position that would avoid a hard border even if a wider trade deal failed to be struck.

But negotiators are at loggerheads on how this pledge will be translated into a legally binding commitment.

The EU wants Northern Ireland to continue to operate under a European customs and regulatory framework, but the Government, under pressure from the DUP, is opposed to any move that would see Northern Ireland treated differently from Great Britain.

Tory MP Steve Baker had hoped to bolt a proposal on to the Northern Ireland Bill that would have given MLAs in Belfast the ability to approve or reject the terms of any backstop.

On Monday evening, Mr Baker tweeted that he was withdrawing the amendment, but he added: “The substantive issues of the Union remain of concern.”

The Bill is due to proceed through all its Commons stages on Wednesday, before being passed to the Lords.

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