Michelle O'Neill welcomes Westminster's 'first step' towards abortion reform in the North

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill welcomed a Westminster debate, describing it as a "first step" on the road to abortion reform in the North.

Michelle O'Neill welcomes Westminster's 'first step' towards abortion reform in the North

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill welcomed a Westminster debate, describing it as a "first step" on the road to abortion reform in the North.

Mrs O'Neill said she wanted repeal of the relevant sections of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act to ensure abortion was no longer treated as a criminal offence in the region.

She called for the Irish and UK governments to then come together under a peace process construct called the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to discuss how to change the laws on terminations in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin supports abortion in extreme cases, like foetal abnormality.

However, the republican party is due to consider whether to change to support unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks at its ard fheis (party conference) later this month.

"I welcome the fact that MPs are talking about decriminalising this issue because women have been criminalised here for far too long," said Mrs O'Neill.

"Women have been criminalised when they find themselves in very, very difficult circumstances, so we welcome that debate but clearly we need to see legislative change here in the north."

Mrs O'Neill said she would prefer to be enacting changes at Stormont but that was impossible due to the current powersharing impasse - a logjam she blamed on the DUP.

She added: "I for one want to be a legislator that brings about that change, but because of the DUP's denial of rights, and the fact we don't have an institution, because of the DUP's denial of rights what we need to see is the inter-governmental conference to meet and for them to deal with the rights-based issues, including the issue of women's healthcare."

Labour MP Stella Creasy, opening the emergency debate in the Commons, said: "There are many issues ahead of us here today - decriminalisation, devolution, domestic abuse but above all I want to say it's about a particular 'D', dignity.

"The dignity of women to be able to choose for themselves what to do with their own bodies."

The Walthamstow MP, reflecting on the Eighth Amendment referendum result to liberalise Ireland's termination laws, added: "It is now time for us to offer our hands to the women of Northern Ireland in the same way."

Ms Creasy said the proposal to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861 would respect devolution, telling MPs: "The time limit would not change, nor would the important role of medics in this matter.

"I respect and recognise that some people do not consider abortion a human right and so think a criminal approach is the right response, but I recognise many more agree it's not that that worries them but the constitutional issues that are stake.

"Even though the Good Friday Agreement explicitly retains human rights responsibilities for (Westminster), let me reassure those MPs who want to uphold the role of devolved assemblies that repealing OAPA would not write a particular abortion law for anyone, but it would require them to act."

Ms Creasy said she was not proposing any particular law but repealing existing UK legislation that then "requires Northern Irish law to act in a certain way".

She added: "In doing so, unlike imposing a referendum or extending the 1967 Act, it would be in line with both our human rights responsibilities - which is why the United Nations has asked us to do this - and it would not impose a specific outcome on Northern Ireland."

Plaid Cymru Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts said such a move would give "more power to devolution", to which Ms Creasy replied: "What it does is it simply means the Northern Irish Assembly, if it's reconstituted, cannot ignore this issue because there would be a gap that would then need to be filled by medical regulation."

DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) said the Assembly debated the matter in 2016 and "rejected totally" Ms Creasy's proposals, adding: "By removing sections 58 and 59, there'd be no regulatory framework in Northern Ireland whatsoever to govern legal abortions.

"There'd be a massive hole left in the law in Northern Ireland and no right by the medical practitioners to actually exercise their conscientious objection to this."

Ms Creasy dismissed Mr Paisley's characterisation of events in 2016, adding two assembly elections since then means there is no guarantee its view would be the same.

Ms Creasy went on to tell MPs that "women will never truly be free whilst one cannot control what happens to their own body".

The Labour backbencher continued by reading abusive emails she had been sent for standing up for that position.

She said: "Judging by the emails I've had today it's either mine or my mother's fault, I made the mistake that many MPs make of actually reading my emails today."

One email, which she read, said: "Your views are a disgrace to humanity and a betrayal of the truly innocent, women can always say no or keep their clothes on.

"You madam were once an embryo, you madam were once a fetus in your mother's womb, you were once a pre-born baby. I wonder what decision you would have wanted your mother to make about your life or death had she been given the opportunity in the months before you were born."

Independent Lady Hermon (North Down) earlier noted it was a "very, very sensitive and controversial issue", particularly in Northern Ireland, as she sought assurances for her constituents that the "important" debate did not undermine the devolution settlement.

She told Ms Creasy: "I have received a large number of emails from constituents who feel that MPs at Westminster are usurping the powers and responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Assembly during a period when we haven't had a functioning assembly, and I wish we did have one."

Conservative MP Michael Fabricant (Lichfield), in his own intervention, said: "It is surprising but rather wonderful actually that the Republic of Ireland is actually leading the way on this and, indeed, also on gay marriage."

He added: "Not withstanding the fact that Northern Ireland is devolved, they should look now to the south and say 'They are leading the way, and we should follow'."

Ms Creasy concluded her speech by calling on ministers to implement change in "at most 150 days".

She said: "150 years is a long time to wait for social justice, so let's not wait anymore.

"Today we ask the minister to commit to a timetable when the will of the House can be tested on this issue, were rather we wait 150 years, we wait at most 150 days before we see change."

Tory former culture secretary Maria Miller later stood to offer her support to Ms Creasy.

She said: "We need a change, in 2016 724 women from Northern Ireland travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortion care. I think it's wrong that women in Northern Ireland don't have the same access to abortion as my constituents do."

Ms Miller added: "I believe that the situation should not exist, the fact that the same rights are not available to one in four parts of the UK is difficult to understand."

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said she "personally" wanted to see "reform", but said it was "a matter for the people of Northern Ireland".

She said: "This is a matter of conscience: a free vote on this issue in this House would be afforded if the matter of abortion comes before the House again, and the same applies in Northern Ireland.

"That is why the Government, like its predecessors, believes that the best forum to debate and resolve these and many other matters is a locally elected Northern Ireland Assembly, so the Government's priority remains to urgently re-establish strong, inclusive, devolved government at the earliest opportunity."

Ms Bradley said the referendum in Ireland was "undoubtedly a significant moment in the history of that country", but said its "read-across to the situation in the United Kingdom has to be treated with care".

She continued: "We do not know what the Irish law will look like - that has to be debated, it has to be taken through both houses of the Irish Parliament - we cannot simply read-across from that vote."

And she told MPs abortion is a "very sensitive issue, regardless of where your views lie", and said it was therefore important that the issue is debated with "due care and sensitivity".

Concluding her remarks, Ms Bradley stressed the need for the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider the issue and listen to views of the people.

She added: "Or, as (Tory MP Maria Miller) suggested, we are in danger of disenfranchising 1.8 million citizens of the United Kingdom."

Ms Bradley said her focus was on working closely with Northern Ireland's political parties to restore the devolved government.

She added: "The Prime Minister has been clear in her support for women's rights in respect of access to safe abortions and she welcomed the referendum result in Ireland.

"We are in agreement that the best way forward for Northern Ireland is through locally accountable politicians making important decisions through devolution, and for the people of Northern Ireland to have their say on the devolved issues which affect their daily lives."

DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today because the Abortion Act 1967 was not accepted.

"I am proud of that pro-life position, I am proud of the fact that there are so many people alive in Northern Ireland today because we have a law that respects the rights of both women and of the unborn child and we will maintain that position."

He said the law in Northern Ireland had been shown to reduce the number of abortions in the jurisdiction, and said: "For that reason I am very thoughtful about any change in the law in Northern Ireland."

Sir Jeffrey added: "There are strong voices on both sides of this debate, this is a devolved issue - it should be left to the people of Northern Ireland to decide."

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