Picture the scene. Boris Johnson’s Government has just overruled the Scottish Parliament and imposed a seismic policy change upon Scotland. The change relates to a devolved matter – something that should be in the gift of Holyrood and Holyrood alone. What would the headlines say? “SNP blasts assault on Scottish democracy”. “Sarwar says devolution disrespected.” You can imagine the protests, the media outrage, and the inevitable legal action against the UK Government, accused of transgressing the grounds of the Scotland Act 1998.
The regulations even go beyond abortion itself and could lead to meddling in NI education
The anger would be justified of course. Devolution handed broad powers to the Scottish Parliament which should be applied in a manner decided by MSPs, not MPs. Overriding the will of the Scottish Parliament on a devolved matter would be an affront to Scottish democracy itself. No Tory leader intent on saving the Union would dare make such a dangerous move. It would play into the SNP’s narrative that Westminster has no regard for Scotland and her people.
It is strange, therefore, that Johnson et al have no such qualms about disrespecting Northern Ireland devolution. Last week, MPs and Peers rubber stamped new UK Government regulations that give the Secretary of State for NI, Brandon Lewis, powers to override Stormont and compel the commissioning of abortion services in NI. The regulations even go beyond abortion itself and could lead to meddling in NI education. Both health and education are devolved matters. The UK government has no business interfering.
So what is the government playing at? The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 are designed to shore up new abortion laws in Northern Ireland, also imposed upon NI by MPs. In 2019, English, Welsh and Scottish lawmakers voted to legalise abortion in NI for any reason up to 12 weeks, on demand to 24 weeks, and up to birth in cases of disability, through a cynical amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act. The Assembly was not functioning at the time. It had collapsed after a breakdown between nationalist and unionist politicians caused by the Renewable Heat Incentive Scandal.
The UK Government and its abortion allies have encountered a problem though. Since reconvening last year, the NI Assembly has chosen not to actively commission abortion services in NI. Health Minister Robin Swann, spurred on by pro-life colleagues and a massively pro-life electorate, has taken a different path. In April, Junior Minister Robin Walker MP described his disappointment that more abortions are not taking place in NI itself and outlined his plan to “correct” the situation through overriding the Northern Ireland Executive:
While over 1,100 abortions had been provided locally in Northern Ireland since April 2020, services have not been formally commissioned by the Department of Health. That is why we recently laid further Regulations which provide the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with a power to direct the Department of Health and others to take the action necessary to implement the recommendations…of the CEDAW Report. Women and girls in Northern Ireland should have the same rights in this space as those across the rest of the UK.
There is so much wrong with this statement. Firstly, there is affirmation of a blatant power grab by the Secretary of State via secondary legislation. Secondly, there is a suggestion that a non-binding CEDAW Report, penned by a pro-abortion committee of the UN, requires legislative action. It does not. And thirdly, there is the assumption that women should have the same access to abortion in Northern Ireland as in Scotland, Wales and England. Some would certainly make the argument for this. However, it is up to the people of NI to decide this, not MPs.
Northern Ireland is politically, culturally and socially distinct from the rest of the UK
The position of Northern Irish citizens is eminently clear. Northern Ireland is politically, culturally and socially distinct from the rest of the UK. Many people — Catholics, Protestants and others — oppose abortion as a matter of principle. When the original abortion regulations were being considered, around 20,000 people came together at Stormont to demonstrate their opposition. This was one of the largest demonstrations in Northern Ireland in modern times. Votes at the NI Assembly since it was re-established have also put beyond doubt that MLAs oppose radical abortion laws. MLAs are expected to pass the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, to outlaw abortion up to birth for non-fatal disabilities like Down’s syndrome.
The UK media seems disinterested in this disgraceful trashing of NI devolution. Aside from a couple of articles in NI itself, there was no coverage of the new regulations passing. Even with DUP and Conservative MPs accusing the government of a “grievous” undermining of devolution and a number of Peers warning that the imposition risks undermining the integrity of the Union itself.
These warnings should be heeded. If the government continues to flagrantly disregard devolution to satisfy the demands of pro-abortion MPs, it risks doing irreversible damage to relations with Northern Ireland. It’s a febrile political situation in NI at the best of times and with Brexit — and a recent flair up in sectarian violence — the stakes are very high indeed.