Northern Ireland news

British government directs Stormont to set up abortion services

Abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution had collapsed

The British government has used new powers to direct the Stormont Executive to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland.

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis confirmed the widely-anticipated move in a written ministerial statement to Parliament.

Abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution had collapsed.

However, while individual health trusts are currently offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services due to an ongoing impasse within the Executive.

In March, the British government intervened to hand Mr Lewis new powers to direct the Department of Health to commission the services.

Today, he formally took that step, directing the Department of Health and the first and deputy first ministers to commission the services no later than March 31, 2022.

"This ongoing stalemate leaves me no choice but to issue a direction," said Mr Lewis.

"I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access the healthcare as set out in the 2020 Regulations."

Mr Lewis issued the direction to the Department of Health, Minister of Health Robin Swann, the Health and Social Care Board, First Minister Paul Givan and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

He noted that abortion was a sensitive issue.

"I acknowledge and respect the deeply-held views that individuals hold on this issue," he said.

"However, it is the clear will of Parliament that the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland are properly upheld."

Mr Lewis explained why the British government had created the new powers in relation to directing the commission of services.

He said: "We took this important step because a year after the 2020 Regulations were made, women and girls in Northern Ireland are still unable to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care in Northern Ireland in all the circumstances allowed by the Regulations we made on March 31 2020. This remains the case today."

The secretary of state also directed that immediate support be provided to sustain the interim services currently being offered by the health trusts in Northern Ireland. He warned that those services were "at risk of collapse".

"Though I recognise the huge strain that Covid-19 has placed on healthcare in Northern Ireland, I remain extremely disappointed that full commissioning proposals have not yet been brought forward by the Department of Health and that the Executive has not an opportunity to discuss them," he said.

Mr Lewis said it was for the Executive to find the funding necessary for the services from within the annual Treasury block grant or its own coffers.

"At the heart of this matter are the women and girls in Northern Ireland, who have been, and continue to be, denied the same reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK," he said.

"Parliament determined that this should be corrected and by exercising the power to direct, we will ensure that it is."

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