Northern Ireland news

SDLP in abortion policy resignation warning

Colum Eastwood and Nichola Mallon both support a free vote on abortion. Picture by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

A former chairman of Omagh council has warned of resignations from the SDLP's ranks over the leadership's support for a liberalisation of abortion policy.

The warning from retired SDLP councillor Pat McDonnell comes after The Irish News revealed yesterday that party leader Colum Eastwood and deputy Nichola Mallon are united in their support for a shift in party policy to allow free votes in relation to abortion.

The SDLP, which has been a pro-life party since its foundation nearly 50 years ago, meets on Saturday behind closed doors to debate a number of motions on abortion.

The one-off conference in Maghera, Co Derry will discuss motions ranging from the retention of the SDLP's pro-life stance to advocating a policy of allowing terminations in cases of rape and incest.

The weekend meeting comes less than a week ahead of the Republic's May 25 referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the constitution, which protects the rights of the unborn child.

Ahead of Saturday's conference, Mr McDonnell contacted The Irish News to raise concerns about a potential "watering down" of the party's pro-life stance.

Mr McDonnell, who retired as an elected representative in 2014, said there was no need for the party to review its abortion policy.

"This is a totally unnecessary meeting because the SDLP should not be changing our pro-life policy," he said.

"This conscience vote is a farce – all politics comes down to matters of conscience. Human life is sacred from conception to the grave."

Mr McDonnell said there was "very angry talk" among party members over the potential liberalisation of abortion policy and he said there would be resignations if the motion on a conscience vote was carried.

Another source said yesterday's story in The Irish News had "caused alarm bells" in the party ranks.

SDLP headquarters declined to comment on the matter

A party spokeswoman said Saturday's conference would "allow membership the opportunity to discuss this sensitive issue in a respectful, compassionate and fair manner".

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