A Labour peer has said that abortion laws in Northern Ireland can be changed in Westminster as it is a human rights issue.
Lord Alf Dubs said there is an “alternative path” to making legislative changes to the region’s strict laws after a House of Commons committee released a report on abortion.
The peer was speaking at the 58th plenary of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA) in Co Wicklow.
It comes after a draft report on the cross-jurisdictional implications of abortion policy was expected to be presented to the Assembly on Tuesday. However, it was delayed to consider a minority report from the Democratic Unionist Party’s Paul Givan.
The BIPA committee worked on the report, which included expert evidence, for around six months.
The report is now expected to be published at the next plenary in October.
Abortions in Northern Ireland are currently illegal in all but exceptional medical and mental health circumstances.
A contentious voting mechanism – the petition of concern – has been used in the Northern Ireland Assembly to block changes to the abortion legislation.
Speaking at the Druid’s Glen Hotel, Lord Dubs said: “I will say this – and I’m going further than I should – there are two ways of changing the law in Northern Ireland.
“One is to have the Assembly back and they can do it. The petition of concern point is particularly important because it affects the ability of the Assembly to reach a majority decision then to be stifled by a minority.
“The alternative path, which is a path pointed to us by the House of Commons committee which has just released a report on abortion, is to go down the human rights path and say that human rights is not a devolved matter… and therefore human rights is the responsibility of Westminster so it can be legislated upon without the need for the Assembly.
“Clearly, if there will be an Assembly up and running, as we hope there will be, then they can decide whether to go down the human rights path.”
Lord Paul Murphy said that the abortion issue was raised with him a number of times when he was secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
“I wouldn’t take a decision because I wanted the Assembly, to which of course the issue of abortion is devolved, to take that decision,” he said.
“The problem being of course over the last couple of years is that there is no Assembly and the world is changing.
“One of the issues surrounding this and same-sex marriage is the use of the petition of concern in order to veto any developments on either abortion or same-sex marriage.
“If the rules on petition of concern change then I assume it will be the majorities in the Assembly who will decide one way or other on these issues.
“We have to be careful what we are doing does not go against what might be political and constitutional developments in Northern Ireland over the next couple of months.”
Mr Givan, a DUP MLA, claimed the draft report does not contain information about rights of the unborn child.
He added: “From the outset the report flows that it is purely a women’s rights issue and makes no recognition at all of the unborn child and that’s something that I want redressed and indeed I hope to bring forward to the next plenary in a more considered position that will hopefully shape the actual report.
“The report focuses almost entirely on Northern Ireland but when you look at the inquiry it is about the cross-jurisdiction and implications of abortion policy.
“Nowhere does it indicate that Great Britain has got this fundamentally wrong, nowhere does it say that the (Abortion) Act 1967 has resulted in over eight million deaths of unborn children.
“Nowhere does it say that in Northern Ireland 100,000 people are alive today because we didn’t implement the Act in Northern Ireland.”
- Press Association