Northern Ireland news

Former SDLP deputy leader insists on compatibility of pro-life stance and conscience votes

Brid Rodgers said a conscience vote was necessary on ciomplex moral issues. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

A former SDLP deputy leader has said there should be no confusion about the party's decision to retain its pro-life policy while allowing free votes on abortion.

Brid Rodgers was speaking after a special conference backed motions to maintain a pro-life stance, while allowing party representatives conscience votes on matters relating to abortion.

Delegates at Saturday's behind-closed-doors meeting in Co Derry backed the motion to allow free votes by 70 to 51.

But former party leader Alasdair McDonnell said afterwards he was "confused" by the outcome.

"But we're opening up that we're pro-life but that you can do your own thing," he said.

"It's certainly an interesting position that I can't make much sense out of."

Mrs Rodgers welcomed the party's endorsement of free votes on abortion, which was backed by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and deputy leader Nichola Mallon.

The former Stormont minister said it was a "very sensible approach" and consistent with what the SDLP had done in the past.

"On difficult and complex moral issues that are not black and white, it's important that people are allowed to vote with their conscience," she said.

"As a supporter of civil rights all my political life , I believe in giving people the right to make their own decisions on issues of conscience."

Responding to Mr McDonnell's remarks, Mrs Rodgers said the former South Belfast MP had supported free votes at Westminster on a number of issues.

Elsewhere, it has been highlighted how the party is a member of the Party of European Socialists, which is pro-choice but allows the SDLP to conscientiously opt out.

"I don't know how anyone can be confused by a situation where the SDLP has voted to retain its pro-life stance and then allow freedom of conscience," the former Stormont agriculture minister said.

"I understand Alasdair has supported conscience votes in the House of Commons in the past and he wasn't confused on those occasions."

Mr McDonnell was not available for comment.

Mrs Rodgers appealed to anybody who was considering quitting the party in the aftermath of Saturday's vote to reconsider.

"I think people should sit back and look at the fact that the SDLP is still a pro-life party – it has not changed its policy – but it has given members the right to vote in line with their conscience," she said.

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