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Why Northern Ireland Should Not be Forced to Accept British abortion laws.

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The below speech was made by the author in the House of Lords on 30 October 2018 in the House of Lords

My Lords, in March 1979, four days after Airey Neave was brutally murdered in the precincts of Parliament, I made my maiden speech in the House of Commons.

I reflected on the need to find political solutions to the endless cycle of violence in Northern Ireland. During the years that followed, I served as a spokesman on Irish affairs. In 1985 I was appointed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to be a member of the commission that served under the chairmanship of the late Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, which produced the report What Future for Northern Ireland?

Our commission concluded that progress could be made if, instead of encamped and embedded hostility to the other community, the respectful place of both traditions in a devolved power-sharing institution could be recognised.

While endless legislation was rushed through as emergency legislation, none of it addressed the fundamental issue.

Eight years later, on 20 March 1993, the shocking waste of innocent life was underlined when a bomb was left in litter bin in a shopping area of Warrington.

Two children, three year-old Johnathan Ball and 12 year-old Tim Parry, were murdered. As I stood with John Major at their funeral, it was clear that the finest memorial to those boys would be renewed efforts to end a conflict which, over 30 years, claimed 3,600 lives, injured and maimed thousands more, and left countless lives scarred and disfigured in the way that my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames described earlier.

The Downing Street declaration of December 1993 paved the way for the Good Friday agreement, signed on 10 April 1998.

The painstaking and patient work of a succession of Secretaries of State, some of whom have been in your Lordships’ Chamber this afternoon, the statesmanship of men like John Hume and the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and ultimately the willingness of the Reverend Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to make devolution work, set aside the forced choice between British and Irish identities, with two tribes looking out at one another in enmity and hate—all gains alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, in his moving speech.

I hold both an Irish and a British passport, as do my children. In two world wars, my grandfather and father fought in the British Army, and an uncle died in the Royal Air Force.

My mother was a native Irish speaker. Her family suffered extreme poverty in an area where Irish nationalism and republicanism had been nurtured by famine in one century and brutality in the next.

So, more than most, I have always had to hold in tension a love of both traditions. From both sides of my family I was taught to abjure violence and to uphold the sanctity of every human life.

I am troubled to see the gains of those years now at risk. Here we are again, rushing legislation through this House in 24 hours flat, with the House of Commons having done the same.

I was struck—it has not been referred to yet—by the report of the Select Committee on the Constitution of your Lordships’ House, published only yesterday. It stated:

“We question whether the speed at which the Government wishes to pass this Bill is necessary … more time (even with a fast-track timetable) could have been made available for parliamentary scrutiny of this Bill”—which is surely our job. It continues:

“We emphasise that in any other circumstances provisions such as these which challenge established constitutional principles would not be acceptable”.

That brings me to Clause 4, which the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, just referred to, as did other noble Lords.

It purports to provide guidance to members of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland in relation to the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861: namely, the provisions banning abortion—the deliberate ending of the life of a child in the womb.

This is a serious issue. This is the law of this land. “Procuring miscarriage” is an offence unless two doctors agree that one of the defences set out in the Abortion Act 1967 applies. So how can the Secretary of State issue guidance to another jurisdiction advising on the repeal of legislation that is current law in her own jurisdiction?

As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said earlier, this is smoke and mirrors—and, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, it makes a nonsense. This is an absurdity, and on this point alone these ill-thought-through amendments ought to be dismissed.

In the mid-1990s, I accompanied a cross-community delegation of Members of Parliament—from the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Official Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party—to see John Major.

We were given his assurance that he and the Conservative Government would insist that abortion would remain a matter to be settled in Northern Ireland.

It troubles me that Clause 4 seeks to unsettle that agreement. In a Bill of such a limited and temporary nature, how can anyone reasonably suggest that an issue as contentious and sensitive as abortion should even be included for consideration?

In the Commons, the amendments that were introduced came at such short notice that many MPs did not even know that the House would divide. Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State, was right when she said that if the amendments were passed, which they were, it would put the Northern Ireland Civil Service in “an impossible position”. She went on to say that, “the Bill cannot force Northern Ireland Departments to change the law”, as the new clause seeks to do—a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in his remarks earlier. The Secretary of State said:

“It would be totally contrary to the rule of law and the way the independence of the civil service across the whole United Kingdom operates”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/18; col. 385.]

In March of this year, 47 Members of this House, including former Cabinet Ministers, co-signed a letter to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland noting that legislation from Westminster would severely destabilise the devolution agreement.

The Prime Minister says it would not be right for the United Kingdom Government to undermine the settlement agreement.

We have heard many references during the debate to things such as human rights. In December we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that everyone has the right to life.

There is no right to abortion in human rights law: let us be clear about that. Nowhere does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refer to abortion being a human rights question.

There will be a chance to return to these issues in Committee, but let me conclude.

Noble Lords do not have to agree with my substantive opposition to the taking of the life of a child in the womb, up to and even during birth in the case of a child with a disability—which results, in Great Britain, in one abortion every three minutes, or around 40 in the two hours that we have been debating this Bill so far, or some 9 million since 1967—or my noting that if that legislation had applied in Northern Ireland, 100,000 people would not be alive today who were born because the legislation does not apply there.

Noble Lords do not have to agree with my view about this to be concerned about the provisions in this Bill.

As parliamentarians, we have a duty to pass laws that make sense, a duty to uphold the principles of subsidiarity, a duty to resist the making of laws on the hoof, a duty to insist on proper scrutiny and debate, a duty to contest ideology and sloganeering, and a duty to respect the people of Northern Ireland.

About Lord David Alton of Liverpool

Profile photo of Lord David Alton of Liverpool
For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer. He began his career as a teacher and, in 1972, while still a student, he was elected to Liverpool City Council as Britain’s youngest City Councillor. In 1979 he became the youngest member of the House of Commons and, in 1997, and when he stood down from the Commons, he was appointed a Life Peer. His motto on his Coat of Arms is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy: Choose Life.

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One comment

  1. This is a perfectly coherent position. It also, from the title onwards, assumes that there is no substance in the assertion that NI is an integral part of the UK. In practical terms, Fermanagh is most certainly *not* as British as Finchley.

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