Strange – or maybe not so strange – that the overwhelmingly male Slugger blogosphere tends to prefer the sectarian dingdong to difficult social issues like abortion which the Assembly and the legal establishment between them actually affect. But if constitutional issues are your bag, there’s now something in the subject for you too.
After the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast under an actually progressive unionist Dawn Purvis, the Attorney General John Larkin weighed in with an offer to conduct a forensic examination of the clinic organisers before the Assembly Justice Committee. MLAs have on the face of it a valid concern that the clinic may be unregulated because providing a service like the morning after pill and the like was not envisaged by the existing legislation dating back to 1945. As far as I know, Larkin’s appearance would be a constitutional first for a non-member to participate in a legislative committee session in the UK, acting as counsel. Legal provision exists for the Attorney to take part in Assembly sessions but it has not yet been implemented. But that provision however doesn’t seem to cover Larkin’s offer to conduct questioning before the Justice Committee where it seems he would be acting as a “guardian for the rule of law” whatever that is precisely, and not as the Executive’s chief legal adviser.
Is Larkin wise to make this offer? My old colleague Joshua Rozenberg thinks not, because as Attorney General he might have to refer the matter to court. Nor have members of the Justice Committee exactly leapt at his offer. The vice chair Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney has even ducked it, preferring the police to intervene if the law has definitely been broken (reflect on that for a moment). This is a view which has failed to commend itself to the PSNI, as it begs the whole question of whether the law has been broken or not . It’s been pointed out before that Larkin has form when it comes to abortion, although no doubt he would carry out his function with scrupulous fairness. And better him I suppose than Edwin Poots flying solo on the floor of the House.
Liam Clarke in the Bel Tel has delivered himself of a few highly informative pithy pieces on the subject. In one he calls for clarity over the operation of the law, which is clearly under scientific as well as social pressure. In the other he has doubts about the Larkin initiative, likening it to the inquisitorial Star Chamber of 400 years ago which could order executions like the hideous Spanish Inquisition.
Paul Givan and his fellow members of the Justice Committee are unlikely to go that far. But if the Attorney is finally invited to legally examine the Marie Stopes clinic before the Assembly Justice Committee, then surely in the interests of fairness the clinic and all other witnesses should be able to brief their own QCs at public expense? It would certainly make great telly. Whether it would enhance the Assembly’s reputation is another question.
Is a legal inquisition before the Assembly really the best way to deal with the highly sensitive subject of abortion? I think not.
If the Clinic presents new legal challenges since the Court of Appeal in 2003, let Mr Larkin pursue the issue before the courts. It appears – s0meone please correct me if I’m wrong -that consultations on revised guidelines for the termination of pregnancy begun in 2010 are still in limbo after the revised guidelines were issued, then withdrawn. If so this is a disgrace, bearing in mind that the issue went to judicial review and then the Court of Appeal almost a decade ago.
Let the Assembly concentrate on endorsing the guidelines, however limited they are, and on mitigating the pain for around 1500 women a year who have to pay for an abortion in Great Britain because Northern Ireland’s omission from the 1967 GB Abortion Act means the NHS principle of free treatment does not apply to them. And let greater support be offered to that hidden number of women who cannot afford to travel.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London