29/05/2018 16:54 BST | Updated 13/07/2018 00:18 BST

What Does The Irish Abortion Referendum Mean For Northern Ireland?

'The eyes of the world will be on us.'

This weekend Ireland voted resoundingly to change its strict abortion laws, paving the way for the removal of a near blanket ban on terminations.

Ireland’s Health Minister, Simon Harris, is now due to draft a new law that will allow abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, subject to medical advice and a cooling-off period, and up to 24 weeks in exceptional circumstances.

Harris says it will take until the end of the year to implement, as he must first pass the legislation, regulate the medicines involved, and agree new medical guidelines.

Attention has now turned to Northern Ireland’s restrictive laws, where abortion is heavily regulated and is permitted only if a woman’s life is at risk, or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

It is estimated that around three women travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion every day, while others risk prosecution by self-medicating with abortion pills.

Sara Nelson
Campaigners at the abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland on Saturday 

Theresa May says ‘No’

As the focus shifts to Northern Ireland, campaigners have been quick to ask why women in the province have not been given the same rights to abortion as the rest of the UK.

The power to set abortion laws rests with the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly - but it has been suspended for 18 months.

This has prompted calls for Westminster to take direct action. More than 140 MPs are said to back plans by Labour MP Stella Creasy to amend a forthcoming domestic violence bill to help liberalise abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

And Prime Minister Theresa May is facing demands from senior Tories, including from within her own cabinet, to hold a free vote in the Commons on the issue.

Education Minister Anne Milton said she would back liberalisation of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. “I understand there was a survey last year that showed a majority for a change in the law in Northern Ireland,” she told ITV’s Peston On Sunday.

“It does feel anomalous and we are offering abortions for women from Northern Ireland (in England), that doesn’t feel quite right. It will be for the Northern Irish to reflect on.”

Labour’s Baroness Chakrabati said the PM, as a “self-identifying feminist”, should legislate without delay. She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties in Northern Ireland and then to legislate without further delay.

“You can’t have democracy without fundamental human rights. And the women of Northern Ireland have suffered for long enough.

The matter presents a political headache for May because her fragile administration depends on the support in the House of Commons of the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs, who strongly oppose any reform to Northern Ireland’s strict laws.

Downing Street has said officially it believes that any reform in Northern Ireland “is an issue for Northern Ireland”, a source said, adding “it shows one of the important reasons we need a functioning executive back up and running”.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, said: “Friday’s referendum has no impact upon the law in Northern Ireland, but we obviously take note of issues impacting upon our nearest neighbour.

“The DUP is a pro-life party and we will continue to articulate our position. It is an extremely sensitive issue and not one that should have people taking to the streets in celebration.”

Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaigns manager Grainne Teggart said: “A failure to act would make Theresa May’s Government complicit in the harm and suffering of women caused by Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws.”

What next for Northern Ireland? 

Both Northern Ireland’s main parties oppose liberalising abortion laws, but Sinn Fein, a nationalist party, is open to some changes. 

After Saturday’s result, hundreds of pro-choice activists stepped up their bid for change with a rally in Belfast.

A group calling itself Solidarity with Repeal held a demonstration at Belfast City Hall on Monday evening, which was attended by several hundred protesters bearing placards and chanting.

PA Wire/PA Images
Protesters at Belfast City Hall calling for the provision of abortion in Northern Ireland 

Speaker Eleanor Crossey Malone from Rosa, a socialist feminist movement, said: “The referendum has had a hugely invigorating effect on society in the South and it has already hit the North like a seismic wave, with Theresa May coming under immense pressure to immediately extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

“We still have a draconian abortion ban in the North and we have a fight ahead of us.”

On Thursday protesters will board buses in Belfast and head for Londonderry while protesting at the offices of main political parties. She said: “The eyes of the world will be on us.

“We won’t wait until the DUP is ready, we won’t wait until it is politically expedient for Sinn Fein. We want abortions now and we will fight until we get them.”

Among those attending was Patricia Magee, 34, from Belfast. She said: “Given the referendum in the Republic, Northern Ireland is now seriously dragging behind the rest of Europe in terms of women’s health care and rights and we are very frustrated that nothing is being done to address this.

“The Northern Ireland Assembly need to get their act together, they need to get back to work and start addressing this basic health care issue.”