"I stand with my sisters in Northern Ireland, and I absolutely endorse their right to choose, but I do not claim to know their situation better than they do. I endorse their right to help shape the legislation they live under, but it is not for me or for anyone here to tell them how to do that."Deidre Brock MP
In the aftermath of the vote in Ireland, I saw a quote from a woman in Northern Ireland to the effect that she had the right to hold both UK and Irish passports and to be citizens of either or both, but she now did not have the right to choose that women in either jurisdiction have.
That quote was third or fourth-hand by the time I saw it, but it seems to be an indicator of where many women in Northern Ireland find themselves.
"Stranded" might be the best description of how they see their plight. Their plight is my plight, and their fight is my fight. If they suffer, I suffer, too. I stand with the women who feel themselves shorn of the rights they see across the border in Ireland and across the Irish sea.
I wonder, though, why this should be seen as an emergency debate. The referendum in Ireland did not change the conditions in Northern Ireland. Nothing has changed for women in Northern Ireland in terms of access to health services, except that they now have another geographically close comparison. Nothing has improved for them; nothing, happily, has got worse for them. Nothing has changed for them, more is the pity.
Yes, this is a very sensitive issue. Our sisters therefore deserve a little more consideration than a rushed debate. Who here, other than Members serving constituencies on the other side of the Irish sea, has any real perception of the issues and possible consequences surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland?
I stand with my sisters in Northern Ireland, and I absolutely endorse their right to choose, but I do not claim to know their situation better than they do. I endorse their right to help shape the legislation they live under, but it is not for me or for anyone here to tell them how to do that.
Support I can offer and encouragement I will give, but legislation has to be with the agreement of the people. Government is only with the consent of the people.
I hear those who say this is a human rights issue, and I agree. That is why we must leave the judgment on that in the hands of the Supreme Court, which has a duty to examine the reference from the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland and will give guidance that must be followed.
As we know, the judgment will be handed down on Thursday. We have two days to wait.
A little look at how Ireland approached amending its constitution would be instructive for many in this Chamber and, indeed, in the Chamber next door. Ireland's move to allow abortion to be legislated for—that being the substance of the constitutional amendment, as has been pointed out—began with a citizens' assembly.
It was the people who had their hands on the tiller. This was no political campaign or activist-led agitation; this was people power from the start, and it should be a lesson to anyone who wants to effect major change.
The details of the assembly are online at citizensassembly.ie, which I recommend to anyone who would like to think a little more about how nations should change direction.
As we have heard, Ireland is now free to choose whether to legislate to allow terminations, and I understand legislation is currently being drafted. Ireland does not yet have that law in place and, as the Secretary of State mentioned, the debate is just getting started.
I note that the Taoiseach has indicated that allowing women from Northern Ireland to access such services across the border is being considered, and he points out that women from Northern Ireland regularly access other health services in Ireland and that there is no reason why they should be denied any new services.
We should not, however, think that Ireland's legislation is done and dusted. The drafting is not yet complete, never mind its passage, but that legislative process is a matter for Ireland, for the Irish people and for the people they have elected to serve them.
Likewise, the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter and is an issue for the people of the Northern Ireland and the people they elect to the Assembly. It is a matter devolved and, frankly, it matters not a jot whether the decisions made at Stormont, when it is sitting, are agreeable to Members sitting here. That is the point of devolution, a point that some Members of this place have been spectacularly slow to appreciate at times.
The decisions of devolved Administrations are taken for reasons that people in those devolved nations understand from their point of view, and they are taken using evidence that the people, politicians and policy makers of those devolved nations consider important. That principle stands, and it can be seen in the way in which Scotland has led on public health issues.
As we know, Stormont has not sat since January of last year, and I wish absolutely to condemn the cowardice of the politicians who cannot give enough ground, or cannot risk losing a little face, to get the show back on the road and start deciding on issues that affect the people they are paid to serve.
I say that because this issue has been considered at Stormont; the need for legislation has been agreed at Stormont and a way forward has been laid out by a working group in Northern Ireland. In a debate on the consideration of a Justice Bill in February 2016, amendments were tabled that would have allowed abortions to take place in Northern Ireland in specific circumstances. Those were tighter than the conditions in place under the Abortion Act 1967, but they represented movement none the less.
This followed a deal of public consultation undertaken by Ministers on the issues of fatal foetal abnormality, incest and rape. It is clear from what has been said today and from reading the transcript of that debate that there was not exactly a consensus that day, and the amendments were defeated—not overwhelmingly, but substantially.
One telling contribution that day was made by the then Member of the Legislative Assembly for South Belfast, who is now the Member for Belfast South in this place. In her speech that day, she said she was speaking on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party on the issue and she urged the Assembly to reject the amendments in favour of the DUP plan. She said:
"the DUP is rejecting the amendment but outlining a road map to a sensible, informed and appropriate way forward. The Minister of Health has been asked to establish, by the end of February, a working group that will include clinicians in this field and legally qualified persons to make recommendations on how this issue can be addressed, including, if necessary, bringing forward draft legislation. We have asked that all interested parties should be consulted and that the group will be tasked to report within six months. We all need to hear more fully the views of the Royal College and others. We all need the opportunity to ask those vital questions to get the appropriate advice. That is why the working group is the best and most appropriate way forward."
That working group has now reported and as the DUP is behind it, it surely has enough impetus to clear the hurdles of political impasse in Northern Ireland.
The report recommended a relaxation of the restrictions on abortion, citing the general duty of the Department of Health under the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 to secure improvement in the physical and mental health of people living in Northern Ireland. The report pointed out, however, that legislative change is required for that to be done. The report is clear that
"the current practice results in inequality of outcomes for women in this particular patient population group when compared to the standards for treatment and care afforded to other pregnant women by Health and Social Care as required by the Department of Health's Maternity Strategy".
It recommends changes in the law to allow abortions to take place.
The changes suggested would not go as far as the legislation here or in Scotland. Examining that was not the remit of the working group; it was examining only what legislative change was needed.
The changes would not bring legislation into line with the rights and protections we have here and would not end women having the trauma of travel to a foreign jurisdiction for health treatment.
The changes would not be the changes I would like, but they are the changes that the politicians of Stormont agreed to support. We have an obligation to respect the fact that the debate on abortion has not perhaps yet been won in Northern Ireland, but this small step can be taken while the debate continues.
Stormont should be reconvened and it should consider legislation on abortion, along with all the other responsibilities it has, but this is a devolved responsibility. Legislating here on a matter that is the responsibility of a devolved Administration is invidious, and the idea that Members sitting here can make decisions without any regard to the consequences is foolhardy.
Stormont has not sat for far too long and that looks set to continue. It is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility on the part of elected Members. It is not sitting, but it has made this decision, and there is no reason why this place should not legislate to put that decision into effect. Stormont could always decide how to proceed when MLAs return to work.
Legislating here for abortion in Northern Ireland without the consent of the Northern Ireland legislature is not tenable, but consent has already been given for some change and we should implement that.
We should press ahead and deliver that; a comprehensive review of the legislation can then proceed, with the people who would be affected front and centre.
Too often, the rights of women are ignored and women are belittled. There is a moral obligation on the politicians of Northern Ireland to get back to work, engage with the people and move on.
They can look to Dublin's example for a way in which to start. There are decisions to be made, and hopefully they will lead to a full and proper health service for women, but I argue that that is not our decision. By all means we should legislate to put into effect the changes that have been decided, but we should not make decisions here that should more properly be made in Belfast.
I stand by the women of Northern Ireland and I stand with those who campaign for a full service, including a proper abortion service. They should be able to influence such decisions and have them made in their own legislature.
Too often, the conceit is that this place knows best, but the re-imposition of direct rule on Northern Ireland is in no one's best interests, let alone those of the women who need support and a decent health service.
The DUP supports the change in the law that was agreed by Stormont; let us help it to deliver that change.
21/12/18 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm Stockbridge Library Surgery
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