Nuala O'Loan: Abortion vote in Westminster was a denial of democracy
Just before and during the July 12 holiday, the Westminster Parliament acted, without warning, consultation or proper procedures, to impose on Northern Ireland a more liberal abortion law than that which applies in the rest of the UK. They did so by amending a bill which was supposed to give the Secretary of State more time to work to restore the NI Assembly. That was all that was supposed to happen.
In those few days over 20,000 Northern Ireland residents, including leaders of all kinds from right across the community, signed a letter, written by me and Lord Eames to the then PM, Theresa May, calling on her to either withdraw the Bill, or to consult with our MLAs and seek their majority consent to such legislation. The settlement which established the NI Assembly required Westminster to consult devolved Assemblies before passing a law on matter which had been devolved. Abortion was and is a devolved matter. This did not happen.
Every Northern Ireland MP who sits at Westminster voted against this, as did all members of the House of Lords living in Northern Ireland, but it was imposed on us by MPs and Peers from England, Wales and Scotland. This was a complete denial of democracy to the people of Northern Ireland.
This new law will apply unless the NI Assembly meets again before October 22.
If it does not, then between October 22 2019 and March 31 2020, abortion will be legal up to 28 weeks, for any reason, including, for example where the baby has a disability or is of a different sex from that which the parents want, unless it can be proved that the baby would have been capable of being born alive,
There will be no law governing where, how, or in what circumstances an abortion can take place, no requirement to keep records. Government has said it will introduce guidance. Guidance is not law and does not provide legal protection.
As soon as the Act was passed for Northern Ireland, there were calls in Westminster to extend the time limit for most abortions in Great Britain to 28 weeks, because that will be the law in Northern Ireland. This is part of a major campaign to decriminalise abortion in all circumstances.
We do not have any idea what form abortion law might take after March 31.
If the Assembly is not re-established, all the power is in the hands of the Secretary of State, who must bring forward regulations to provide for abortion law. He can decide what should be in the Regulations. There will, again, be no general consultation. The only consultation will be to ensure that abortion is available to everyone who wants it without any discrimination.
We will have no say in critical issues such as time limits, reasons for abortion, provision for the protection of the life of an unborn baby, or provision for conscientious objection for our doctors, nurses and pharmacists. There will be no opportunity to put arguments of any kind about how medicine and our understanding of life in the womb has developed in the 52 years since abortion was introduced in Great Britain. The Regulations will have to be either be approved by Westminster within 28 days or rejected. They cannot be changed. Their content cannot be challenged.
This is a double denial of the democratic rights of the people of Northern Ireland.
It is probable that Parliament having voted to impose abortion on us, will not hesitate to pass the Regulations.
Time is very short. I know from the response of the people here during those days in July when Parliament railroaded this Bill through, that so many people believe in the right to life of the unborn child, and do not want this new law.
The day after the law was passed - the last day before the summer recess - I introduced another bill in the House of Lords, seeking two things: the restoration of the current law until March 31 next year, and the support of a majority of MLAs for any future abortion law. It is most unlikely that government will allow that Bill to proceed in time to stop what has now happened.
This is a terrible situation, one in which everybody who cares about unborn babies, about women and girls who might be coerced into abortion by unwilling partners or parents, can make a difference. What happened in Westminster last month should not have happened. Those whom we have elected need to get back into government.
The people of Northern Ireland, right across the community, need to make their voices heard again as they did last month, requiring recognition of our democratic right to make our own decisions.