Pro-lifers prepare to mount legal challenge against new powers to expand abortion in Northern Ireland

Stormont.(Photo: Getty/iStock)

Pro-life groups have expressed dismay after MPs in Westminster backed regulations giving Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, new powers to impose expanded abortion access in the province.

The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022, which amend the the Northern Ireland Act 1998, were approved by MPs on Wednesday by 215 to 70.

They hand sweeping powers to Lewis to effectively dictate abortion policy in Northern Ireland despite the fact that the province has a sitting Health Minister, Robin Swann.

Critics say that the powers undermine devolution and the Good Friday Agreement.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) is preparing to mount a legal challenge against the regulations.

It argues that the parliamentary procedure used to change Northern Ireland's constitutional settlement is not lawful.

"We hope that the court will recognise that in the frustration caused by its inability to impose a radical abortion regime on Northern Ireland, the Government has over stepped the limits of its legitimate power," said Liam Gibson, SPUC's Policy and Legal Officer, who is based in Belfast. 

During a debate on the regulations in the House of Lords, Baroness O'Loan said: "Despite the fact that a duly elected and appointed Northern Ireland Minister of Health is in office and working, we see an attempt to bypass him and give the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland powers that are not available to Northern Ireland ministers or their government departments."

She drew particular attention to the Ministerial Code in Northern Ireland that requires its ministers to bring "significant or controversial matters" to the attention of the Northern Ireland Executive Committee.

"Abortion is a significant, controversial matter," she said. 

She added, "The regulations give broad, sweeping powers to the Secretary of State effectively to act as a Northern Ireland Minister without having been appointed as a minister in accordance with the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and without any accountability to the people of Northern Ireland."

The regulations were passed by Westminster despite recent polling showing that a majority of Sinn Fein and DUP voters want abortion access only where the mother's life is at risk, a position in line with the laws that existed in the province prior to Westminster's intervention. Only 5% supported abortion up to 24 weeks - the limit in the rest of the UK.

Catherine Robinson, spokesperson for the Right To Life UK campaign group, said the changes to the Northern Ireland Act "make a mockery of the idea of devolution".

"Abortion has been imposed on a region whose population and Government do not want it. Normal parliamentary procedure and debate seem to have been side-tracked in the pursuit of promoting abortion. As always, women and their babies are the ones who lose out most," she said. 

Mr Gibson echoed these concerns.

"Northern Ireland's devolved structures were designed to ensure that decision about contentious issue, such as abortion, were taken on the basis of consensus," he said.

"The Ministerial Code placed members of the Stormont government under a statutory duty to consult their colleagues and find a way forward that all parties could accept.

"These new regulations give Brandon Lewis greater power than Ministers elected by the people of Northern Ireland. They have the potential to cause complete confusion by creating a rival power structure within the administration, health officials may be faced with incompatible and even contradictory instructions.

"Brandon Lewis has made it clear that he intends to move quickly to expand the provision of abortion. But while he can demand that funding is made available for late term abortions he will not have to account for the financial impact his decisions will have for existing healthcare which is already at braking point in many places."