Arlene Foster, the leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, wrote Saturday that the party is 'resolute' in its opposition to abortion, and she called for the restoration of devolved government in the region.
“The DUP’s position on abortion remains resolute and unchanged since the Party’s inception,” Foster wrote in a Sept. 21 opinion piece at The News Letter, a Belfast daily. “We are a pro-life party and will continue to support the rights of both the mother and the unborn child.”
“We will continue to devote our energies to finding a resolution on both abortion and the restoration of a Northern Ireland Government, preferably before the 21st October.”
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 and its amendments legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage, a law passed by the British parliament, will take effect only if the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended the past two years due to a dispute between the two major governing parties, is not functional by Oct. 21.
Abortion is legal in both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Elective abortion is legal in the rest of the United Kingdom up to 24 weeks, while currently it is legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother's life is at risk or if there is risk of permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Foster noted her participation in a Sept. 7 demonstration protesting the impending legalization of abortion in Northern Ireland. Tens of thousands joined in the protest; she said that “the law on abortion is a devolved matter. It should be decided upon by the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
Devolution refers to legislative reforms passed in 1999 which introduced levels of legislative autonomy for the different countries of the United Kingdom and created the Scottish Parliament and national Assemblies for Wales and Northern Ireland.
Foster said that while the Northern Ireland bill was being debated in Westminster, the DUP's 10 MPs “were ridiculed both inside and outside Parliament for their pro-life stand.”
“The Act will not come into force if the Northern Ireland Executive is restored by October 21, but for some, this is now being portrayed as a false choice between ‘language or life’,” she stated.
Among the problems that led to the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly was the Irish Language Act, which would give Irish equal status to English in the region. It is supported by the nationalist parties Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and opposed by the unionist DUP and Ulster Unionist Party.
Sinn Fein has said that it will not participate in the formation of a Northern Irish government without an Irish Language Act.
Foster commented that “it is a mistake to think there is a simple trade-off between” the Irish Language Act and the region's abortion law.
“Language or life,” she said, “is an over-simplification and conveys a belief that if the DUP were to agree to every Sinn Fein demand, including an Irish Language Act, then devolution would be restored immediately and Northern Ireland’s abortion laws would remain unchanged.”
Foster said the DUP strongly desires “an immediate return of devolution,” and that its restoration does not lie “only in the hands of the Democratic Unionist Party.”
“We have put down no preconditions or ‘red lines’ ahead of the restoration of the Executive. We would nominate Ministers today,” she noted.
The DUP leader said she offered in August 2017 to seek “a reasonable and balanced accommodation for the Irish Language,” but that “that offer was rejected by both Sinn Fein and the SDLP within 90 minutes.”
She also noted that even were devolution restored, it would not of itself be “an absolute safeguard against abortion liberalisation.”
“The DUP is the only pro-life party in the [Northern Ireland] Assembly” besides Jim Allister, the Traditional Unionist Voice's sole member of the legislative assembly, she said. “We have 28 seats out of 90.”
Sinn Fein supports the liberalization of abortion law, while the remaining parties allow their MLAs a conscience vote on the topic.
Foster said that while abortion law “would come before the Assembly quickly after devolution is restored,” the change effected by the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 “is far beyond anything any NI Assembly would ever have endorsed. Having the NI Assembly back up and running before the 21st of October would give all MLAs the opportunity to shape any future laws.”
Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
“Anyone who cares about the legislative framework governing abortion in Northern Ireland must also look beyond 21st October and ask all MLAs what they believe the law should say,” Foster said.
The DUP “want to see the Assembly restored so that local elected representatives can frame the laws for the people of Northern Ireland,” the party leader stated.
“Both getting devolution back and defending a pro-life policy have been and will continue to be, fundamental priorities for the Democratic Unionist Party, but it is unfortunately simplistic and mistaken to assume progress on one will resolve the other in the manner we all require.”
Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.
The Northern Ireland bill was passed by the British parliament in July.
The abortion amendment was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who represents a London constituency. Earlier this year Creasy intended to propose an amendment to a draft Domestic Abuse Bill that would give the British parliament jurisdiction over abortion laws throughout the United Kingdom. However, the bill's scope was restricted to England and Wales by the Conservative government.
Creasy also introduced an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 to repeal Northern Irish law on abortion and gay marriage, which was defeated.