The imminence of direct rule underlines the fact that the SDLP are wrong not to back Margaret Ritchie as a member of the House of Lords

The SDLP still haven’t managed to shake off  strategic ineptitude. They’ve   achieved the worst of both worlds by wishing former SDLP leader and MP Margaret Ritchie well but “ fundamentally disagree” with her decision to go to the Lords. This is in fact an enlightened  move by Margaret which deserves SDLP backing.

The SDLP attack Sinn Fein for persisting with abstention from the Commons when their voting presence might have made a difference in narrower Brexit votes.  The absence of a nationalist voice at Westminster is glaring.  Ian Paisley took a small trick yesterday when he associated the absent and  defeated SDLP with his tributes to the retiring Speaker. And while the SDLP opinion is split over abortion, a reform position was  missing  in the  exchanges about the forthcoming legislation in the Commons last night.

While the SDLP are hardly alone in their disapproval of the unelected second chamber, their virtue signalling is badly out of date.  Its traditional image of ermined unelected privilege no longer reflects today’s reality.   Lords  appointments are regulated  by an independent commission and there is no Tory majority. By general consent it does a better job in scrutinising legislation than the Commons.

Having suffered a Commons whitewash the SDLP should welcome the restoration of a nationalist voice at Westminster and face down the obvious Sinn Fein jibes . That’s what they’re more afraid of than anything else.

Because of prorogation, a  host of hot issues pending direct rule –  compensation for abuse victims, Troubles victims payments, the draft Legacy bill  and the forthcoming enactment of same sex marriage and abortion reform to mention a few-   will almost certainly be denied the level of promised scrutiny before the 21 October deadline for restoring the Assembly.  Nevertheless the new secretary of state Julian Smith, although peeved that he hasn’t been consulted about prorogation but still in office, confirmed his commitment to reform  

Despite the truncated debate, I underscore my assurance to the House that I will continue to uphold the letter and the spirit of my obligations.. On abortion reform..

.. it is the Government’s preference that any questions of reform on these important, sensitive and devolved issues are considered in the right place by a restored Executive and a functioning Assembly. However, we recognise that a majority of MPs want to ensure that reform happens if we continue to see an absence of devolved government. From 22 October, the specific criminal law in Northern Ireland will fall away, and a criminal moratorium on prosecutions will come into place. I have instructed my Department, working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Government Equalities Office to develop an appropriate new legal framework that will be in operation by 31 March 2020 if that proves to be the case.

Ian Paisley rushed up to object.

Does  the Secretary of State realise that the legacy of what he has announced is complete and total legal chaos from 21 October to March next year? There will be no regulatory framework in place, and anything goes when it comes to the termination of the lives of innocent children. Is that the legacy that he wants? Is that the blood on the hands that he wants?

Reform champion Stella Creasy  rejected Paisley ‘s “ chaos “ but acknowledged the need for greater clarity.

I agree with the concerns raised across the House about the interim period, and about what will happen when we decriminalise sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 on 22 October if the Assembly is not reconstituted. I note that the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 will remain in place, so the idea that there will not be any regulation at all simply is not true. We must deal with fact, not scaremongering, in this debate. But still, can he confirm that he is talking to the royal colleges—the actual medical experts?

With 35 days to go, what is the Secretary of State’s message to women in Northern Ireland who will need an abortion on 22 October, whether because they have a fatal foetal abnormality, are a victim of rape or incest, or simply do not want to be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy?… His own report says that there is not a clear path. Will he tell us a bit more about how he is going to set that out and what international models he is looking at? Above all, can he give us the confidence tonight that when he is managing this interim process, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who is facing a prosecution because she got abortion pills for her daughter who was in an abusive relationship will not face prosecution from 22 October? If we do one thing in this House this evening that is constructive, let us take the stress and pressure off that family.

.. So will the Secretary of State set out precisely what regulations he is looking at now so that when we get to that 35-day period we can shorten it and give everybody here comfort that the human rights of the women of Northern Ireland will continue to be upheld?

But time had run out for Smith to reply in the House. The shape  of these reforms is now uncertain. While they are due to return when the Commons returns on 14 October,  the crisis  over No Deal and an election may force postponement until after the expected election and a new Queen’s Speech containing the government’s  programme for the new parliament. And that’s a whole new ballgame. A dying parliament cannot bind its successor.  And Boris Johnson is opposed to Westminster taking action.

With direct rule in prospect  for a period, Westminster assumes a greater importance over NI domestic affairs. If non- abstentionists can’t manage to get elected to the Commons, this is no time to  refuse to go for second best in the Upper House, with its greater opportunities for scrutiny.

 

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