POLITICS
04/06/2018 19:31 BST | Updated 05/06/2018 10:54 BST

MPs Agree Emergency Debate On Abortion Reform In Northern Ireland As Theresa May Urged To Defy DUP

Earlier, PM urged to act by Tory women MPs

PA Archive/PA Images

Theresa May is facing huge pressure over abortion reform in Northern Ireland after MPs agreed to stage an emergency Commons debate on the issue.

Speaker John Bercow gave the go-ahead for the debate to take place on Tuesday after MPs on all sides backed an application by Labour backbencher Stella Creasy.

The discussion will last for up to three hours, and could end with a vote backing calls for voters in Northern Ireland to be given their own referendum on change.

Abortion is illegal in the province because it is exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act that lifted restrictions in the rest of the UK.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is propping up May in power, has a strict anti-abortion stance.

But following Ireland’s landslide referendum vote to end its own curbs, May is facing demands from her own ministers and MPs to allow voters north of the border to hold a similar poll.

Creasy said the Irish referendum had “thrown a spotlight” on the issue in Northern Ireland how it still applies the the 1861 Offences against the Person Act (OPA) that makes it a crime for any woman to cause her own abortion.

As Bercow asked the Commons if he had its leave to grant the debate, scores of MPs on all sides stood to express their symbolic support.

The entire Tory frontbench backed the application for a debate, with Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt both showing their support.

Mordaunt is among several senior ministers, including Ann Milton, who favour reform of the law.

Creasy welcomed the Government’s backing.

Labour MPs shared a new slogan on Twitter, portraying the Irish result as the first stage towards repeal of Articles 58 and 59 of the OPA.

Earlier, May held a private meeting with several leading Tory women MPs, including Women and Equalities Committee chair Maria Miller, to discuss the issue. Mordaunt and former Cabinet minister Amber Rudd were also present.

The PM was urged to consider finding fresh ways to give voters in Northern Ireland a fresh say over abortion, while respecting the devolution settlement that means the province’s Assembly decides such matters.

The Northern Irish executive, a power-sharing government between the DUP and Sinn Fein, has been suspended for more than 18 months amid rows between the parties.

Labour’s Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti has said the issue would be a ‘test’ of May’s own ‘feminism’.

BBC
MPs stand to support the emergency motion application

But with DUP leader Arlene Foster and her party opposed to abortion reform, it’s unclear how the PM could influence events.

The emergency debate vote will not be binding, however all eyes will be on the ministerial response to gauge clues in the Government’s thinking.

Creasy stressed she wanted local people to have a say, but it’s possible that a future domestic violence bill could be amended to include provision for a referendum.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty UK’s Northern Ireland Campaign’s manager, said: “There is now significant cross-party pressure on the UK Government to be on the right side of history and reform our archaic and discriminatory abortion law. 

“We urge as many MPs as possible to prioritise this crucial debate, show their support for women and girls, and commit to the decriminalisation of abortion.

“Time is running out for Theresa May, who cannot continue to be inactive on this pressing women’s rights issue any longer.”

The debate comes two days ahead of the UK Supreme Court’s ruling on whether Northern Ireland’s abortion laws violate human rights. The judgement will be delivered on Thursday.

House of Commons
Labour MP, and PPS to John McDonnell, Karen Lee

However, Creasy faced criticism not from Tories or the DUP but from one of her own side last night.

At the weekly Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting, fellow MP Karen Lee said she knew “for a fact” that Creasy had failed to consult the party’s frontbench team about her emergency motion.

Lee - a former Parliamentary aide to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and now shadow fire minister - further claimed some CLPs [constituency Labour parties] were “appalled” by her conduct, several sources told HuffPost.

The newly-elected Lincoln MP also sent WhatsApp messages saying she used to work in termination clinics but had real concerns about what Creasy had done. She would have been “supportive” if the emergency debate motion had been “run by the Shadow front bench team”.

Issues like abortion are usually classed by parties as matters of conscience beyond whipping.

But HuffPost has been told that Creasy had indeed discussed her emergency motion plan with Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Tony Lloyd. She has also been working with shadow home minister Carolyn Harris and the whips’ office, one source said.

Creasy was not at the PLP meeting as she was in the Commons chamber preparing for her debate application. One MP said that Lee’s attack prompted others to even more strongly show up to support the Creasy motion minutes later.

Lee has been asked to comment.