LONDON – Britain’s leaders are facing increasing calls to take action to loosen abortion restrictions in Northern Ireland after the Republic of Ireland’s landmark referendum in favour of doing so, but complex political realities may make quick action difficult.
Prime Minister Theresa May is being asked by some legislators and activists to take steps that might lead to liberalization in Northern Ireland now that Ireland has voted overwhelmingly to repeal its constitutional ban.
Once new laws are put in place by Ireland’s parliament, Northern Ireland would be the only region in the U.K. and Ireland to ban abortions. Its strict law prohibits abortion even in cases of rape and cases when the fetus is judged to have a fatal abnormality.
Terminations are allowed in England, Wales and Scotland — and will be legal in Ireland by the end of the year if its parliament acts as quickly as national leaders hope. The Irish Cabinet will meet Tuesday to discuss what steps to take after Friday’s resounding two-to-one vote in favour of liberalization.
Sarah Wollaston, a member of May’s party who is chairwoman of the Commons Health Select Committee, says she would vote in favour of extending abortion rights to “all women across the whole U.K.”
She said a referendum in Northern Ireland might be one way to achieve this goal. Others have made similar proposals, with some Labour Party figures urging May to back up her feminist ideals by taking action.
But action in Northern Ireland is complicated by a number of important factors. First, its power-sharing national assembly — a key product of the Good Friday agreement that in 1998 ended decades of violence known as “The Troubles” — has been suspended, meaning it is unable to take any action at all.
May’s options for direct action are also somewhat limited.
Her government’s minority status in Parliament makes her dependent on the co-operation of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which is opposed to abortion. May relies on DUP support to survive no-confidence votes.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has said the vote in Ireland will have no impact on the law in Northern Ireland.
Foster said Sunday that abortion rights must be decided by the Northern Ireland Assembly — once it’s restored to power, a goal which has been extremely difficult because of a breakdown in trust between leading Catholic and Protestant parties.
“The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter and it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate and decide such issues,” she said. “Some of those who wish to circumvent the assembly’s role may be doing so simply to avoid its decision.”