Northern Ireland news

Peers divided over moves by MPs to extend abortion and human rights protections to Northern Ireland

Peers reacted with a mixture of approval and concern over the implications for the devolution settlement
Dan O'Donoghue

PEERS have been left divided over moves by MPs to extend certain human rights protections to Northern Ireland in the absence of a devolved administration.

MPs, in a free Commons vote last week, passed an amendment to emergency legislation which would require ministers to issue guidance to Northern Ireland civil servants to ensure compliance with UK abortion and same sex marriage legislation.

While the Northern Ireland (executive formation and exercise of functions) bill is designed to partly address the governance vacuum created by the collapse of power-sharing, and provide breathing space for the region's rowing politicians to resume negotiations, Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn wanted to use it as a vehicle to deliver wider social change.

As the bill arrived in the Lords for further consideration, peers reacted with a mixture of approval and concern over the implications for the devolution settlement.

Former Lib Dem leader David Steel, now Lord Steel of Aikwood, offered support for Ms Creasy's amendment and said the current situation in Northern Ireland was "untenable".

"The fact is that during the Brexit negotiations we've been told we cannot have a line down the middle of the Irish Sea, affecting trade from one part of the United Kingdom to the other and yet we have a line down the middle of the Irish sea affecting human rights," he said.

Former lord chancellor Lord Mackay told peers that the government had no power to alter abortion law in the north.

"Abortion has been made a devolved subject and therefore the only statutory authority with authority to alter the statues and statutory instruments are the legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland," he said.

"There's no power whatsoever in the UK parliament to interfere with that while it is devolved."

DUP peer Lord Morrow later warned against "cherry picking" issues to legislate on from London.

"We will strongly oppose any attempt to cherry pick and decide what should or should not happen in Northern Ireland," he said.

"Abortion is a devolved matter and the legislation in Northern Ireland is the most up-to-date of any part of the United Kingdom, having been decided in 2016 on a cross-party vote, no petition of concern was used but a straightforward majority that the law should remain as it is."

Lib Dem frontbencher Lord Bruce countered by saying there was a "huge amount of public support" for abortion reform in Northern Ireland as he told peers he supported the Creasy amendment.

Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan, opening the second reading debate of the bill, told peers he wished "the bill itself was not necessary".

"We will not be waiting until March to bring the Northern Ireland parties together, following the passage of this legislation the secretary of state intends to meet party leaders to discuss the basis, process and timing for further talks."

On the issue of the Creasy amendment, Lord Duncan said it "does not alter the law", adding: "These issues are devolved and should rightly be determined by an incoming assembly, but as I stated this clause does change the law in respect of the wider legal framework in respect of either."

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