Brexit row shows devolution no longer a valid excuse for abortion inaction

Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

“It would not be appropriate for Westminster to seek to impose its will on Northern Ireland” – the words of Secretary of State Karen Bradley when asked about abortion reform in the House of Commons earlier this month. 

At first glance Ms Bradley’s position on the issue appears to be a plausible one, with her standing firmly in support of devolution.  

But after yesterday’s events at Parliament, this stance no longer carries much weight.

In extraordinary scenes, Scottish National Party MPs walked out of the House of Commons after being refused a proper debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill.

Holyrood had overwhelmingly voted to reject the bill, a reflection of the Scottish people’s decision not to back Brexit in the 2016 referendum.

MSPs expected this vote to be respected and for amendments to be tabled at Westminster. It’s a devolved matter, or so they thought.

But not on this occasion. On this particular issue the government was more than willing to override the will of a devolved Assembly in order to press on with a piece of legislation they are keen to pass.

'Incompatible with human rights'

So where does that leave Karen Bradley’s argument that devolution is sacred and cannot be messed with?

Northern Ireland has the most draconian abortion laws in Europe. Terminations are almost entirely illegal, even in cases of rape and incest. Last year more than 900 women travelled to England and Wales for terminations.

The UK Supreme Court recently stated the situation was “incompatible” with human rights law – and called on the Westminster government to act.

But the Secretary of State has insisted her hands are tied. This issue must be sorted out at Stormont, she says. The elephant in the room being, that the Northern Ireland Assembly hasn’t sat in nearly 18 months.

Rape victims, women with diagnoses of fatal foetal anomalies, and teenagers dealing with crisis pregnancies are boarding planes and ferries every day to get the help they need. Many others are taking abortion pills at home, risking life imprisonment.

Ms Bradley’s insistence that she cannot act on a devolved matter, is echoed by the Prime Minister.

But after yesterday’s events, the hypocrisy of that argument has been exposed. 

'Ripping up devolution' 

The government was able to cut across Holyrood on Brexit, despite a devolution agreement called the Sewel Convention

It states that the UK Parliament would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters except with the agreement of the devolved legislature.

The same convention applies in Northern Ireland. 

But it is not legally binding. Last year, the Supreme Court declared the convention had no legal force at all, meaning Westminster could not be challenged in court for over-ruling a devolved administration.

By pressing on with the Brexit bill without Scottish support, the government has done just that. As a result Nicola Sturgeon has accused the Conservatives of "ripping up" the 20-year-old Sewel agreement.  

So if Westminster is willing to bypass the Scottish government – and indeed the Scottish people - on Brexit, why can’t it press on and legislate for abortion access in the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly?

Are the human rights abuses currently being carried out in Northern Ireland, less important than securing the right trade deals with Europe? Is the health and welfare of its women and girls less important than those living in Scotland, England and Wales?

Sinn Fein has indicated its support for abortion reform and poll after poll has shown voters in Northern Ireland want to see change. Political and public will exists, even if the pro-life DUP (which coincidentally props up Theresa May's government) insist otherwise.

Now let’s get on with it.

It’s time for Westminster to stop using devolution as an excuse for inaction. The days of playing politics with women’s lives are over. 

Hannah Little