The DUP deal with the Conservatives has elevated the refusal to allow Northern Ireland women free abortions in England under the NHS into a real issue in the House of Commons. And if Ian Paisley junior can be said to speak for his party (which is not always the case) the DUP may not oppose a change. This would help the party improve its image among the mass of MPs who opposed a deal with “dinosaurs.” Support for a change led by senior Labour MPs Yvette Cooper and Stella Creasy has spread across the floor to Anna Soubry and now the home secretary Amber Rudd. This is quite a coup. An amendment to the Queen’s Speech on the subject will not pass but it can be regarded as pressure for a change which is at the discretion of the health secretary for England Jeremy Hunt. At the same time the Appeal Court in Belfast will rule on whether the existing law in Northern Ireland is contrary to human rights. This may not the end of the matter as it could end up in the Supreme Court.
While it’s too much to expect the DUP at this stage to lift its opposition to elective abortion in Northern Ireland itself, what a change of atmosphere could be created if they promised to stop blocking same sex marriage in the Assembly.
The House of Commons, MPs raised concerns with the first secretary of state, Damian Green, that the government may have a tacit understanding with the DUP not to change the law in England.
But the Guardian understands DUP MPs are unhappy at this suggestion and have not appreciated being subtly painted as an obstacle to the policy change.
In a pointed intervention on Wednesday during a speech by the Labour MP Stella Creasy in the Queen’s speech debate, DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr said: “I do respect her genuine interest in this subject, I think it is important the house recognises this is not a matter for Belfast, this is a matter for NHS England.”
Rudd’s response, meanwhile, was prompted by a question during the debate from Tory MP Anna Soubry, who said there was “much concern on both sides of the house about the situation pertaining to women who live in Northern Ireland who seek terminations.”
Soubry asked the home secretary to give her assurance that access to termination would not be restricted while the situation was “resolved”, though there is no indication the Department of Health is preparing to change the policy.
Rudd said Soubry was “absolutely right … We are absolutely committed to healthcare for women, and that includes access to terminations.”
The controversy has unfolded before an important judgment on Northern Ireland’s abortion law. A court in Belfast is expected to rule on Thursday whether the region’s laws are in breach of the human rights of women and girls.
The court will determine whether two high court rulings in 2015 and 2016 that the existing abortion regime in Northern Ireland breached a woman’s right to a private life under European law can be upheld.
These were in cases involving women and girls who could not obtain abortions in local hospitals in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or became pregnant as a result of sexual crimes.
More than 50 MPs from all the major parties have signed an amendment to the Queen’s speech coordinated by Creasy, which the Speaker is expected to consider for a vote on Thursday, though there is no guarantee it will be chosen.
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