Northern Ireland’s First Minister has accused Westminster of “disrespecting” devolution by issuing a direction that would force Stormont to set up full abortion services.
Paul Givan said Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has “exacerbated” the sensitive issue of abortion in Northern Ireland by using powers that would direct Stormont to roll out health services.
It emerged on Thursday that Mr Givan will attempt to block any move by taking legal action against the UK Government.
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster but full services have not yet been centrally commissioned due to disagreements between the Executive parties.
Mr Lewis has used new powers to direct ministers in Belfast to take the steps necessary to establish abortion services across the region.
Mr Givan said there is a “balance of rights” to consider.
“We always have to respect the very difficult circumstances that people can be in whenever they’re facing very challenging pregnancies,” he added.
The anti-abortion DUP previously blocked Executive consideration of commissioning services, which led to Mr Lewis’s announcement that he would exercise the new powers.
Mr Givan was very critical of the decision, claiming it has “profound implications”.
“They disrespected devolution, and then has exacerbated this issue by issuing a direction against the Minister for Health (Robin Swann) and then the Executive office in terms of requiring me to agree to this item being placed on the agenda,” Mr Givan added.
“I think that is something which in and of itself as a principle has profound implications that the Secretary of State can interfere in the workings of a devolved institution, and issue directions to Executive ministers.
“This issue is a devolved matter, that is a matter that falls within the legislative remit of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“I think on that premise, all ministers should be concerned about the Secretary of State overreaching and disrespecting the devolution settlement.”
Mr Givan said he has sought legal advice on the implications of such a direction.
He went on to describe Northern Ireland’s abortion law as “the most extreme abortion laws anywhere in Europe”.
He said he has more “affinity” to the Republic’s abortion laws.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill supports Mr Lewis’s decision.
“Women in the north have been denied compassionate healthcare for far too long,” Ms O’Neill added.
“When it comes to equality rights being impeded by Paul’s party, the DUP, then I think it’s important that, under the Good Friday Agreement, we recognise that the government with jurisdiction must move to deliver equivalence of rights.
“When it comes to language rights, women’s reproductive rights, same sex marriage, unfortunately these issues have not been delivered upon in the Executive because of the blockage.
“We shouldn’t have to take this method but however we have now," she said.
“The health department needs to get on with delivering and commission the services. Women deserve nothing less.”