News

Stormont official warned delaying abortion report was becoming 'less tenable'

Richard Pengelly, permanent secretary of the Department of Health, and Nick Perry, permanent secretary of the Department of Justice

A SHELVED report recommending reform to Northern Ireland's abortion laws was released earlier this year after a senior Stormont official warned that withholding it was becoming "less tenable".

Nick Perry, permanent secretary of the Department of Justice (DoJ), wrote to his counterpart in the Department of Health (DoH), Richard Pengelly, asking for a high-level meeting to "revisit" their position.

The fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) report was completed in October 2016, but it was not made public until April this year.

Civil servants had insisted ministerial approval was needed, but eventually released it "on public interest grounds".

Departmental correspondence obtained by The Irish News gives an insight into how the decision was made after months of resisting calls to publish the document.

The report recommends allowing abortion in cases of FFA – where medics believe the unborn will die in the womb or shortly after birth.

In a letter to Mr Pengelly on February 6, Mr Perry said he was "writing to ask for your views on the desirability (and sustainability) of us maintaining our current policy position of holding back publication of the report".

Mr Perry said his department had been contacted by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) following a complaint about refusing to disclose the report through Freedom of Information laws.

He said DoJ reiterated its position to ICO, but also informed the watchdog that officials would revisit the issue.

"From a DoJ perspective, the approach taken to date has been informed by a right an proper analysis of how this piece of work was interrupted by the fall of the executive and I have no hesitation in defending that position," he said.

"However, some 15 months after the report was presented to ministers, this analysis is becoming less tenable."

He added: "Of course, an early political agreement offers the preferred way forward but, in its absence, withholding publication is unlikely to be sustainable for long."

Mr Perry suggested a senior-level meeting "would be helpful in charting the best way forward".

The letter prompted a flurry of activity in DoH as a raft of civil servants considered how to respond.

Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride was among those asked for his views. He replied saying he believed the FFA report should be published unless an executive was likely to be formed in the coming months.

A six-page, 24-point briefing paper was prepared for Mr Pengelly. It recommended agreeing to a meeting.

Mr Pengelly responded in writing on March 6, saying he would ask his staff to make arrangements for a meeting.

The meeting was held on March 28, and it was agreed to release the report.

A note of the meeting said it was agreed the "public interest would be better served by the releasing the report" after several factors were considered.

It was agreed the permanent secretaries would notify the political parties of the decision, and DoJ would notify the ICO.

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