Theresa May faces huge new pressure on Wednesday to introduce abortion and same-sex marriage rights to Northern Ireland after Tory MPs backed a cross-party bid to change the law, HuffPost can reveal.
Conservative backbencher Tom Tugendhat has joined Labour’s Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn as the lead signatories to a fresh amendment to make the province comply with human rights legislation that applies in the rest of the UK.
Their amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill stipulates that in the absence of devolved rule in Belfast, the UK Government can direct officials on the ‘incompatability’ of human rights law and the continued curbs on abortion and gay marriage.
Backers of the changes took heart when a symbolic vote on a separate bid to change the law was passed in the House of Commons on Tuesday by 208 votes to 123.
Among the 15 Tories supporting reform were Cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt, sports minister Tracey Crouch, health minister Caroline Dineage, security and women’s minister Victoria Atkins and transport minister Jo Johnson.
The 10-minute rule bill tabled by Labour backbencher Diana Johnson sought to end criminalisation of women who seek an abortion in Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Bill comes before MPs on Wednesday amid hopes from campaigners that the Creasy/McGinn/Tugendhat amendment will be deemed a matter of conscience and therefore not subjected to a whipped vote.
Nearly 80 MPs, including seven Tories – Tughendhat, former ministers Ed Vaizey and Crispin Blunt, Dan Poulter, James Duddridge, Tim Loughton and Heidi Allen - have backed the amendment.
The plan to liberalise the law faces strong opposition from the DUP, whose 10 MPs the Prime Minister depends on to prop up her minority Government.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK which applies the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which effectively criminalises any woman seeking an abortion with a theoretical maximum term of life imprisonment.
Same sex marriage rights are also curbed by section 13(e) of the Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978.
Earlier this summer, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation was incompatible with human rights, although a technicality prevented the judges from advocating explicit changes to the law.
The Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in a referendum this year to overturn its own constitutional ban on abortion.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has not sat since early 2017 and May and her Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley are reluctant to be seen imposing change without the consent of the devolved administration.
Creasy told HuffPost that she had been advised by Parliamentary clerks that her new, carefully-worded amendment was in order and ‘selectable’. It will be up to the Speaker to decide to choose it on Wednesday.
“The absence of an Assembly cannot be used an excuse to ignore the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland- whether their right to marry who they want and have it recognised, or to choose to have an abortion if they wish,” she said.
“Theresa May keeps saying she agrees change is needed but then tries to reject her responsibilities in this matter and puts it back to the Assembly to act knowing it is incapable of doing so.
“She has also said these issues are matters of conscience and so not subject to a whipped vote- it should be on the conscience of every UK parliamentarian that laws written in Westminster years ago still restrict the lives of so many in Northern Ireland.
“The question is whether the Prime Minister is more concerned about the DUP than the damage human rights abuses do - the vote on Wednesday will give each of us the chance to show we stand for equal rights not just internationally but on our own doorstep too.”
McGinn added: “The Government can’t continue to hide behind ‘devolution’ as the reason for denying equality to LGBT people in Northern Ireland and stopping them from marrying the person they love.
“In the continuing absence of an Assembly, Westminster has a duty to ensure people in Northern Ireland are treated equally to those in the rest of the UK - and in fact when it come to these human rights, the rest of the island of Ireland.”
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland office said: “The Government recognises that abortion is an extremely sensitive issue and there are strongly held views on all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland and across the whole of the UK.
“As abortion is devolved in Northern Ireland, any question of future reform to laws or policy is rightly one for a restored Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to debate.
“That is why this Government is focused on restoring devolved government and this Bill is an important step forward. It creates the necessary time and space to restart political talks with the aim of restoring devolved Government at the earliest opportunity.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman added: “I don’t know which amendments are going to be chosen by the Speaker.
“The Prime Minister has consistently said that abortion has always been a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland executive and that the best way forward is that this issue should be decided by locally accountable politicians.”
Here is the Creasy/McGinn/Tugendhat amendment in full:
“Equal rights for people of Northern Ireland (No. 2)
(1) In the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers to address the matters identified by recent, current and future court proceedings in relation to the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State must issue guidance to senior officers of all Northern Ireland departments which will specify how to exercise their functions in relation to —
(a) the incompatibility of the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland with the continued enforcement of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 with the Human Rights Act, and
(b) the incompatibility of the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland with the continued enforcement of section 13(e) of the Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 where they pertain to the provision and management of public services in Northern Ireland.
(2) The Secretary of State shall report guidance under this section on a quarterly basis to the House of Commons and set out her plans to address the impact of the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers on human rights obligations within three months of the day on which this Act is passed.”
Member’s explanatory statement
This new clause would increase accountability of the Secretary of State and senior officers of Northern Ireland departments for their role in ensuring human rights compliance in Northern Ireland, in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers, by requiring them to address incompatibilities between legislation applied in Northern Ireland and human rights obligations.