Last night the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill passed Committee Stage in the House of Lords.
This means that the Bill will now progress to Report Stage tomorrow, which will be the final opportunity for Peers to amend the Bill.
Several amendments were tabled, aiming to either remove or lessen the damage caused by the Creasy abortion amendment that passed in the Commons.
Peers speak out
Several Peers spoke about the dangerous constitutional implications of the Bill, and its impact on devolution and the restoration of the assembly.
Baroness O’Loan tabled an amendment which would require a public consultation and approval from the Assembly on any regulations on abortion brought forward by the Secretary of State for NI.
The Baroness highlighted the fears that bringing in this Bill would result in further delays to the restoration of the Assembly and the impact this will have on the peace process in NI:
“We are in a very delicate place. We all agree that we want our Assembly back, but this Bill, if passed in its current form, would also have the capacity to prevent that… It seeks to make a profound change in our law at a time when Northern Ireland is engaged in negotiation. It seems very odd that the Government, who are not charged with the conduct of these negotiations and who have seen attempts to kill police officers and others, who have seen the bombs and the ongoing bubbling of terrorist activity, are not a little more cautious in their outlook.”
She also spoke powerfully in defence of unborn babies and of the constitutionally damaging aspect of imposing this change on the people of NI:
“One thing I noticed this afternoon was that the unborn child was largely absent from the debate. When mentioned, there was in some quarters a rolling of eyes and expressions of contempt. Yet it has to be said that abortion is about killing babies—real babies…We have heard it said that it does not really matter at all if Northern Ireland’s MPs voted against this, because it is a matter of human rights and if you want to be in the UK you have to accept abortion as a human right. There is no human right to abortion, and I think that is slightly contemptuous of Northern Ireland’s MPs.”
Finally, she mentioned the support garnered across NI for a letter she has written to the Prime Minister with Lord Eames:
“This is something that a cross-party group of 16,000 people are asking us not to do. This is the truest cross-community co-operation from all sectors of our community, from all sides, all places in our beautiful country. We have agreement that we do not want abortion railroaded through in the Bill. I ask noble Lords to at least grant Northern Ireland MLAs the courtesy, the respect and dignity of their roles as elected members and allow them to present their views on this matter. I ask noble Lords to give the people of Northern Ireland the same respect and provide for consultation.”
Unfortunately, the amendment was not supported by the Government, who stated that:
“Consulting the MLAs does not absolve us of the responsibility of ensuring that the amendment is delivered in a practical, workable and timely fashion. Those are the instructions that we have received from the other place and those are the instructions that we shall follow. On that basis, we will hopefully be able to move this matter forward.”
Lord Browne echoed Baroness O’Loan’s comments, highlighting the constitutional issues at stake in using the Bill to impose cultural change on the people of NI:
“Once again, we should be discussing a simple administrative Bill, but instead we find ourselves considering one that would impose huge cultural changes on Northern Ireland without the consent of the people and over the head of their devolved Government. I am sure I do not need to remind your Lordships that the Bill is being fast-tracked in a manner that noble Lords who sit on the Constitution Committee have criticised as constitutionally unacceptable.”
Lord Shinkwin speaks about the impact the law will have on those with disabilities.
Finally, Lord Shinkwin spoke out in support of disability equality and the implications that this change to abortion law would have on those in NI who have disabilities:
“What is proposed in the Bill drives a coach and horses through disability equality. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister—indeed, whether anyone in the Government or in No. 10—has considered the message that changing the law to allow abortion on grounds of disability in Northern Ireland sends to the people of Northern Ireland, to the devoted parents and families of disabled children and, most importantly, to the disabled citizens of Northern Ireland. Today, Northern Ireland is the safest place in the United Kingdom to be diagnosed with a disability. If the Bill is passed, that will change overnight on 21 October.”
He particularly mentioned the impact that a change in the law would have on people with Down’s syndrome:
“I invite noble Lords to consider the Bill from the perspective of someone with Down’s syndrome. In England and Wales, the latest available figures show that 90% of human beings diagnosed with Down’s syndrome are aborted. Today, in Northern Ireland, disability-selective abortion for Down’s syndrome is not allowed. Instead, the culture is one of welcome and support for this disability. The latest figures from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland showed that while 52 children with Down’s syndrome were born in 2016, in the same year only one child from Northern Ireland with Down’s syndrome was aborted in England and Wales.”
“How does [the Minister] reconcile the Act’s acknowledgement of the right of disabled human beings to be equal, to contribute to society and to be respected with the message of the Bill, which is that if you are born with a disability, as I was, you are better off dead? For that is its message to disabled human beings, their families and the people of Northern Ireland.”
If the Bill is not amended further at Report Stage tomorrow, this means that unless the NI Assembly is reformed, abortion will become available for any reason up to 28 weeks in Northern Ireland from 21stOctober. It will also mean that same-sex marriage will be legalised.
Please contact your Peer and ask them to speak in the debate at Report Stage tomorrow.
You can also sign this letter if you are based in Northern Ireland, which calls on the Prime Minister to withdraw the Bill and support Baroness O’loan’s amendment, which she may reinstate tomorrow at Report Stage.
Join us in praying for the debate tomorrow in the House of Lords and that Peers will speak out in defence of life.