Leading article

Abortion legislation should be a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly

AS this week's dispiriting events have emphasised, politics has rarely felt more febrile.

Old certainties and norms are being challenged and shaken as the tectonic plates of the relationships between the peoples and governments of Ireland, Britain and Europe realign themselves.

The catalyst for this unprecedented upheaval is, of course, Brexit.

It has contorted the political system since 2016, and the contours of whatever new landscape eventually emerges from its chaos won't become clear for years to come.

Northern Ireland is uniquely exposed in all of this.

A majority of voters in the north firmly rejected the Brexit fantasy. Their voices have not been heard with the full force that they deserve.

The influence enjoyed at Westminster by the ardently pro-Leave DUP has been a significant factor in this, but so too has the absence of a Stormont Assembly.

Now defunct for more than two-and-a-half years, its mothballing represents a dereliction of responsibility by the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin.

It has also heralded a litany of unintended consequences. These relate not only to Brexit.

In July, for example, politicians at Westminster legislated to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland unless the Assembly is revived by October 21.

The Assembly has in the past rejected such proposals; the prospects of its return in the near future, let alone in less than a month, continue to diminish.

There are parallels between how Brexit is being pursued against the will of the majority in the north and how responsibility for abortion legislation has been taken from the locally-elected legislature where it rightly resides.

With a general election seemingly inevitable, voters are fully entitled to ask candidates about abortion, including the manner of Westminster's involvement.

This should be particularly uncomfortable for the DUP. It will have to explain why it did not use its much-vaunted influence to ensure abortion remained a Stormont matter.

Catholic politicians may also face scrutiny. Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin spoke recently of this when he said they “have an important, but very challenging, responsibility” to protect human life “in all its stages, from conception until natural death”.

Voters have to balance their own competing priorities, and should judge for themselves how politicians, of whatever stripe, have lived up to their responsibilities.

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