Northern Ireland

Pressure mounts on Theresa May over north's abortion laws

Theresa May's fragile administration depends on the support of the 10 DUP MPs
Theresa May's fragile administration depends on the support of the 10 DUP MPs

THE LABOUR Party has told British prime minister Theresa May to prove her feminist credentials by reforming Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws.

Mrs May had already faced calls from MPs across the Commons - including within her own Cabinet - to resolve the "anomalous" situation in Northern Ireland following the overwhelming referendum result in Ireland in favour of liberalisation.

Labour said it was now "looking at legislative options" to see how that could be achieved by Westminster.

The party's shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti said reform was a matter of fundamental human rights.

She told the BBC: "We are calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties in Northern Ireland and then to legislate without further delay.

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"You can't have democracy without fundamental human rights. And the women of Northern Ireland have suffered for long enough.

"I think that Theresa May, really as a self-identifying feminist, needs to say 'yes, I unveil statues of suffragists in Parliament Square, but the test of my feminism will be whether I guarantee fundamental human rights for women'.

"These women in Northern Ireland, often very vulnerable, being forced to leave their homes, and their loved ones, and their country, to get this kind of treatment, that really has gone on for long enough.

"And the result in the Republic just makes the situation even more anomalous now."

Scores of MPs across the Commons have already indicated they are prepared to act to rewrite the current legislation given the absence of a devolved administration in Stormont.

But Theresa May faces a political headache over the issue because her fragile administration depends on the support of the 10 DUP MPs - who strongly oppose any reform to Northern Ireland's strict laws.

Downing Street believes that any reform "is an issue for Northern Ireland", a source said, adding "it shows one of the important reasons we need a functioning executive back up and running".

In a post on Twitter, Mrs May said the vote in the Irish Republic was "an impressive show of democracy which delivered a clear and unambiguous result."

She added: "I congratulate the Irish people on their decision and all of #Together4Yes on their successful campaign."

DUP leader Arlene Foster said: "The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter and it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate and decide such issues.

"Some of those who wish to circumvent the assembly's role may be doing so simply to avoid its decision.

"The DUP is a pro-life party and we will continue to articulate our position. It is an extremely sensitive issue and not one that should have people taking to the streets in celebration."

Setting out Labour's position, shadow women and equalities minister Dawn Butler said: "Fifty years ago, abortion was decriminalised under a Labour government but women in Northern Ireland are still denied this fundamental right, having to travel to mainland UK or faced with potential prosecution and imprisonment at home.

"This is an injustice. No woman in the UK should be denied access to a safe, legal abortion."

She said the changes should be made by the Northern Ireland Assembly, but women "should not have to suffer in its absence" therefore the UK Government should act.

Labour MP Stella Creasy claimed more than 140 parliamentarians had already signalled support for an effort to change the law in Northern Ireland and called on Mrs May to "say you will give a free vote on 21st-century abortion laws".

The forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill promised by ministers could be used as a vehicle for MPs hoping to change the law in Northern Ireland.

In a sign of the pressure from within Mrs May's own party, Education Minister Anne Milton suggesting she would back liberalisation if there was a free vote.

The current situation "does feel anomalous", she told ITV's Peston on Sunday.

Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt indicated her support in the wake of the Irish vote and former women and equalities minister Justine Greening said: "It's clear it's now time for debate and action to achieve the rights for NI women that we have as women across the rest of the UK."

But Justice Minister Rory Stewart warned against the Commons intervening on the issue.

He told the BBC the British government was acting as a "caretaker" administration in the absence of Stormont, and "that must not be used to make fundamental constitutional, ethical changes on behalf of the people in Northern Ireland".