Theresa May was facing growing demands to allow a referendum on relaxing the abortion laws in Northern Ireland on Sunday after signalling that she will not risk alienating her DUP allies by letting MPs settle the matter with a parliamentary vote.
Conservative MPs and the Royal College of Midwives were among those calling for a referendum, which would give voters in Northern Ireland the chance to follow the example set by the Republic of Ireland after it backed abortion liberalisation by a surprise landslide of two to one.
Around 160 MPs have backed a letter, championed by the Labour MP Stella Creasy, saying the government should legislate to relax the abortion rules in Northern Ireland, which will now be the only place in Britain and Ireland where abortion is in most circumstances illegal. Creasy wants to force a vote by tabling an amendment to the forthcoming domestic violence bill.
Labour also said that, as a party, it was committed to extending the right to choose to Northern Ireland and that it would be “looking at legislative options” to try to orchestrate a vote in the Commons. Downing Street’s initial response was to reject the idea of giving MPs a vote, on the grounds that abortion is a devolved matter and one that should be decided by the power-sharing executive and the Northern Ireland assembly. A source said that Theresa May’s focus was on getting the executive, which has been suspended for more than a year, “back up and running”.
But there were reports on Sunday of opposition even within the cabinet, with women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt saying on Twitter that the hope for change in Northern Ireland “must be met” amid calls for the region to have a referendum – although she did not specify how.
Obstacles to a parliamentary vote have prompted some MPs to argue for a referendum, which would allow the people of Northern Ireland to take the final decision, not London, while also bypassing the logjam created by the suspension of the executive.
Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP and GP who chairs the Commons health committee, told the BBC that, while she would vote in favour of pro-choice legislation for Northern Ireland, if that proved impossible a referendum was a good second best. “We’d all like to see the Stormont assembly back up and running and for this decision to be made by people in Northern Ireland but if that doesn’t happen ... then at the very least people in Northern Ireland should be allowed a referendum so that we can gauge the strength of opinion there,” Wollaston told the BBC.
Maria Miller, the Conservative former culture secretary who now chairs the Commons women and equalities committee, posted a message on Twitter saying: “No one should deny the people of Northern Ireland a referendum for the opportunity to have the same rights on abortion as the rest of the UK.”
And in Northern Ireland the Royal College of Midwives’ regional director Breedagh Hughes said no one was speaking up for the “pro-choice majority” in Northern Ireland at present and the only way to give them a voice was through a referendum.
“We have 12 Democratic Unionist MPs whose views do not reflect the majority opinion on the abortion question,” Hughes said. “We have Sinn Féin MPs who don’t take their seats at Westminster. We don’t have a functioning local Assembly which could take this issue on again even though in the past the DUP and others vetoed change. So, the people are voiceless on the abortion question and we say to Theresa May – give us a referendum Prime Minister so that change can come about.”
A No 10 source said May was also opposed to the idea that parliament should legislate for a referendum in Northern Ireland on the grounds that, if there were to be a referendum, that should also be matter for the Northern Ireland executive.
Under the Sewel convention, the UK government has agreed that it will not normally legislate on matters that are the responsibility of devolved administrations without their consent.
But the government is set to ignore this for the first time in Scotland, pushing ahead with the EU withdrawal bill even though the Scottish government is opposed, and May’s stance on abortion is partly motivated by a desire not to antagonise the DUP, who provide the votes that give the Tories their majority and who are strongly opposed to liberalising Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.
May did not comment on the Irish referendum result until lunchtime on Sunday, almost 24 hours after the final result was confirmed, when she posted a tweet congratulating the Irish people on their decision.
On a free vote, the Commons would probably vote overwhelmingly in favour of bringing Northern Ireland’s abortion laws into line with those in the rest of the UK. But the domestic violence bill, which Creasy would like to use as a vehicle for an abortion amendment, is still at the consultation phase and, even when it does come to the Commons, Downing Street thinks that the Sewel convention will ensure that Northern Ireland related amendments get ruled inadmissible.
Dawn Butler, the shadow minister for women and equalities, said Labour would be looking investigating what legislative options it could use to ensure MPs did get a vote on this. “No woman in the UK should be denied access to a safe, legal abortion,” she said. But party sources would not elaborate on what those options might be.
In the past polls have revealed strong support in Northern Ireland for relaxing abortion laws in at least some circumstances, although not to the extent allowed in the rest of the UK.
Currently abortions in Northern Ireland’s hospitals are only available to women and girls where their life or health is in grave danger; only 23 were carried out between 2013-14.
The call for a referendum is opposed by some of the MPs who want to change the law in Northern Ireland. Creasy pointed out that, while a referendum was necessary in the Republic because of its constitution, that was not the case in a north. A referendum would be a move “in the wrong direction” because the law should be changed now, she said.
Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, said: “The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter and it is for the Northern Ireland assembly to debate and decide such issues. Some of those who wish to circumvent the assembly’s role may be doing so simply to avoid its decision. The DUP is a pro-life party and we will continue to articulate our position.”
Sinn Féin, the second-largest party in Northern Ireland, supports limited change to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. Michelle O’Neill, its leader in Northern Ireland, told ITV on Sunday that the region was “becoming a backwater” in terms of rights because of the position taken by unionists.
A spokesperson for Unite, one of the largest unions representing workers in Northern Ireland, backed the RCM’s call for a referendum.
“As long as it does not in any way entail imposing direct rule Unite would like Theresa May to consider the idea of a local referendum and explain to is why, if she objected, the people in Northern Ireland wouldn’t be granted one,” a Unite spokesperson said.