Arlene Foster challenges Sinn Fein to debate abortion reform in the Assembly, claiming SF support for DUP stance

Arlene Foster says some Sinn Fein supporters have told her they will vote DUP because of her party’s position on abortion.

In her first interview since Ireland’s referendum on the issue, she told Sky News a lot of people were feeling “disenfranchised” by the result.

“I have had emails from Nationalists and Republicans in Northern Ireland not quite believing what is going on and saying they will be voting for the DUP because they believe we are the only party that supports the unborn,” she said.

“There are many people who are shocked in the Republic of Ireland and whilst I completely acknowledge the result that happened last Saturday, that doesn’t take away from the fact that there’s a substantial minority of people who feel disenfranchised.”

When asked about the rights of women facing unplanned pregnancy in Northern Ireland, the DUP leader replied: “Abortion is a very emotive subject, a very sensitive subject and therefore it deserves a serious discussion and a serious, mature debate.

It certainly does not deserve some of the antics that we’ve seen recently, frankly, and I did find it, I have to say, quite distasteful to see people dancing about on the streets in relation to the referendum results.

“The way to have that debate, looking at the evidence, speaking to people who have gone through those crisis pregnancies, is to have that debate in the devolved administration.

“We were elected to that devolved administration last March. Nearly 500 days later, we are still not doing the job that we were elected to do.

“There is only one party that is stopping us from doing all of that and bizarrely, that is Sinn Fein, the people who say they want change on in relation to abortion and in relation to same-sex marriage. You can’t have it both ways,”

Labour backbencher Stella Creasy has re formulated  her case against the  Northern Ireland  abortion law  by arguing that the repeal of the all-UK 1861 Offences against the Person Act  would pave the way for the Assembly  to pass its own abortion law for the first time. This addresses the objection that Ms Creasy and more than 130 MPs  were riding roughshod over our democracy. By seeking to avoid a head-on confrontation with the DUP, she is clearly bidding for more Conservative support.  

Speaking on BBC One’s Andrew Marr show, she said: “The [Act] puts abortion in the same category as rape, child stealing and using gun powder to blow people up

She argued that reform from Westminster would still be respectful of devolution, because it is about repealing a piece of UK legislation rather than intervening directly in any Northern Irish regulation.

Ms Creasy also criticised Ms Foster for saying she found celebrations of the referendum win “distasteful”, saying: “I would suggest that somebody who intends to go and march with the Orange Order in Fife at the end of this month may want to reflect on the value of making comments about other people’s protests and decisions to join people.”

Adds.. Abortion reformers will keenly be awaiting the Supreme Court judgment  on Thursday on whether the existing restricted regulations are contrary to human rights. Will Sinn Fein accept the challenge to return to the Assembly and will Arlene debate and not block?  A great deal depends on the Supreme Court ruling. If the court finds the present regulations in breach of human rights – a big If that may also go on to give  an opinion on the Assembly’s suspension, will the DUP defy, comply or stall?  Will Sinn Fein urge compliance with the top British court, or stay butting out with the cry” what about the Irish Language Act “? And who would draft legislation to bring us into compliance?

Foster and McDonald may have to answer these questions after Thursday even if they’d prefer not to. So too  ought the smaller parties and all those MLAs holding up their individual consciences to the light. Whatever the judgment, it isn’t likely to start a rush back to Stormont.

The Supreme Court cannot order the Assembly back into operation but it can draw conclusions from its self imposed suspension and hold Westminster ultimately responsible. The ruling in other words, may go further than the abortion regulations.

 

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