Perhaps the abortion issue is emerging as a new category which breaks the rules of conventional political wisdom. As far as Westminster is concerned, It seems the last word has not been spoken by Theresa May.
This is a devolved matter. Our focus is restoring a democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland so that locally accountable politicians can make decisions on behalf of the public they represent.”
It is not only Stella Creasy and mainly Labour colleagues that are demanding action. The main broadsheet papers are reporting similar briefings from unnamed Conservatives, ministers and backbenchers alike, in favour of action by Westminster in defiance of the DUP if necessary. They have a lot more to lose than Labour. “What devolved government”, they ask? The Stormont route would be a far smoother one but nothing seems to be happening. Instead pressure for a free vote at Westminster is mounting and hasn’t been ruled out.
The last word hasn’t been heard on same sex marriage either. The Times reports
Now she faces fighting with her allies on a second front as ministers must decide whether to support legislation introducing same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. The province is the only part of the UK where same-sex partners cannot marry although they can enter a civil partnership.
The Stormont Assembly narrowly voted in favour of gay marriage in 2015 but the DUP used a veto to delay its introduction and the change has stalled while the body has been suspended.
Two parliamentary bills, one tabled by the Labour MP Conor McGinn and the second by a Conservative peer, Lord Hayward, seek to drive through the change. Although senior ministers are said to be backing the effort in private, the government has yet to say that it will give either official backing. The issue is due to come to a head in a little over two weeks.
The Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, has previously committed to giving MPs a free vote on any legislation but has so far stopped short of pledging government help to get the change on the statute book.
It comes as ministers decide to back moves to allow heterosexuals to enter civil partnerships.
Lord Morrow, the DUP chairman, told Mrs May that she would “regret” allowing Tory MPs a free vote on abortion in Northern Ireland should the issue come to a Commons vote.
Senior female Conservative MPs have warned that Theresa May’s opposition to calls for relaxing Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws breaches the UK government’s “confidence and supply” agreement with the Democratic Unionist party.
“We accepted the DUP agreement with the expressed point it would not be at the expense of any equalities progress and we expect that to be stuck to,” the ex-minister said. “It’s as simple as that.” Another senior Conservative urged Mrs May to “take action” and “depoliticise the issue.
Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons health and social care committee, said: “My first preference is for parliament to just get on with it and argue this is a human rights issue, which trumps the devolution issue.” A group of several senior Tory MPs have also requested a meeting with Mrs May to urge her to consider steps to allow a public referendum. “It’s the referendum route that’s best as it genuinely gives the people of Northern Ireland the choice for themselves and given there’s no functioning government then makes most sense respecting devolution, even beyond a Westminster vote,” said one Tory MP, adding that Mrs May “needs to realise unless she takes that better route, a vote in Westminster will end up being inevitable anyway”.
Senior female MPs have called for an urgent meeting with Theresa May, during which they intend to urge her to lay the groundwork for an abortion referendum in Northern Ireland.
The female MPs intend to ratchet up pressure on Mrs May to initiate a similar poll in Northern Ireland, which is now the only place in the British Isles where abortion is mostly outlawed.
It comes amid growing pressure on Mrs May to live up to her credentials as a feminist, after she refused to act on cross-party calls to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK.
The issue is expected to come to a head in Parliament next week, with Labour planning to push for new legislation and to exploit the Government’s hesitance to act.
Party chairman Lord Morrow and Jim Wells who is now a loose cannon have uttered warnings of dire consequences for the government but so far the DUP MPs and Arlene Foster haven’t said anything definitive.
Will there be now be serious effort to restore the Assembly as the best way of getting everybody of the hook? The scene is ominously quiet. But invoking the Conservative- DUP pact doesn’t seem to be last word either. If pro-abortion Conservative MPs are prepared to risk their seats in an election and aren’t bluffing, the conventional wisdom that the DUP have the Tories by the short and curlies may be wide of the mark.
For their part the DUP know if they were to bring the government down they’d be without friends, probably for ever. Contrary to what some Tories have briefed they claim that legislative action of any kind on a devolved matter would breach the Belfast Agreement and this is one of the terms of their pact with the government. The Conservative rebels’ best argument is that the Assembly has been in limbo for a year and a half and this pledge with it. Over the Assembly the DUP will plead good faith but have offered nothing to tempt Sinn Fein back in. Sinn Fein who are after all the boycotters, are not behaving like a party under pressure.
It would seem be in both their interests to do a deal to return to the Assembly on the basis of free and unimpeded vote on abortion and same sex marriage ( but without any guarantee that they would pass). But so far, not a word that I’ve heard.
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