Westminster wants a greater say in NI rights

15 Dec 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 15 Dec 2017

Left to right: John McCallister (Commissioner); Helena Macormac (Commissioner); Chief Commissioner, Les Allamby; Eddie Rooney (Commissioner); The Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP; Helen Ferguson (Commissioner); and Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Chief Executive, David Russell at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's 2017 Annual Statement Launch.
Left to right: John McCallister (Commissioner); Helena Macormac (Commissioner); Chief Commissioner, Les Allamby; Eddie Rooney (Commissioner); The Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC MP; Helen Ferguson (Commissioner); and Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission Chief Executive, David Russell at the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's 2017 Annual Statement Launch.

MPs are growing more confident and strident about taking a lead in rights issues in Northern Ireland. Local people, activists and politicians should take notice – the balance on matters like abortion and gay marriage might be about to tip.

Westminster is ready to play a bigger role in rights issues in Northern Ireland.

So says Harriet Harman, the former Leader of the House of Commons, who was in Belfast this week – and gave a speech saying that parliament will take an active and tougher stance over here.

Ms Harman stated that MPs have long been encouraged to leave NI to its own devices, but that the mood is now changing among representatives.

As much as anything else, the speech was a rallying call for changes in the laws around abortion, with the former Shadow Deputy PM saying, “the women’s movement… has been the framework of my life in politics”.

However, Stormont continues in its utter dysfunction, while the Brexit border debates have thrust the similarities and differences between NI and the rest of the UK into the middle of the political arena.

This speech was something that should make both local politicians and rights activists take notice.

Ms Harmon was speaking at the launch of the Annual Statement of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), and she was effusive about Westminster’s growing readiness to involve itself in rights in Northern Ireland, saying this has been a difficult and frustrating area over past years and decades – but citing the government’s summer decision to pay for NI women to have abortions in England as a major victory and also an indication of parliament’s readiness to act.

“Relations between the government in Westminster and decision-making in Northern Ireland was and remains, extraordinarily sensitive and complex, deeply entangled with the peace process.  And we always wanted to see the peace process succeed.

“Often when women in Northern Ireland reached out to us for support we were warned, “that’s got to be decided in Northern Ireland - if you interfere in that you’ll jeopardise the peace settlement.” Of course, we want to support devolution and decision-making by Northern Ireland’s own representatives.

“But there’s a new dimension to the sense of solidarity between women in Westminster with our sisters in Northern Ireland. The preparedness of Parliament to engage in the issue of abortion for Northern Irish women is testament to that.

“In a PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] which is now 43% women and where there are young women on all sides of the House who are what I describe as daughters of the women’s movement, there is a reluctance to accept being told to stay out of it, just accept what male-dominated Northern Irish politics dictates and don’t intrude.”


The relationship between Ms Harmon’s speech and NIHRC’s report is clear and obvious.

The paper tries to cover the whole range of local human rights efforts in an exhaustive and accessible way. Once again, they have used a green/amber/red traffic light system to provide a quick assessment of each area.

Green represents a subject that required action to protect human rights and where an effective response has been provided by Westminster, the NI Executive or relevant public bodies.

Amber identifies an area that requires statutory action but where there is not necessarily an ongoing violation of rights, and where initial steps might already have been taken to address the matter.

Red “identifies a subject that requires immediate action by the UK Government, NI Executive or relevant public authorities and the issue may be an ongoing violation or abuse of human rights within NI.”

NIHRC looked at 74 different subjects in total. None were given the green designation, 64 amber and 10 red – one of which, under the right to Health, was termination of pregnancy.

Direct involvement

NIHRC has been actively involved in trying to change the law on abortions in Northern Ireland. In December 2014 it pursued a judicial review against the Department of Justice on the basis that the status quo on abortion violates the human rights of women in NI, specifically in that it does not allow for access to services in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest.

Their application was successful however, in January 2016, the Attorney General and the Justice Minister both lodged appeals before the NI Court of Appeal, which ruled in June of that year that the original decision should be overturned.

This decision was itself appealed before the NI Supreme Court, with the hearing taking place in October of this year. Judgement has been reserved and a ruling is not expected until 2018.

These legal challenges have taken place at the same time as political battles on the issue. An inter-departmental working group was set up in March 2016 and produced a report for the Health and Justice Ministers, although this report has not been made public.

However, per the NIHRC report: “During the hearing of the Commission’s case before the Supreme Court, counsel for the Department of Justice indicated that the Working Group report recommends a change in the law regarding fatal foetal abnormality.”

Under some pressure, in June this year Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that the NHS in England would fund terminations for women travelling from NI. Financial support for this came from the Government Equalities Office, while a further announcement from the Minister for Women and Equalities said that support for travel costs would be provided for women meeting hardship criteria.

NIHRC says: “The Commission recommends that the Department of Justice introduce legislation to end the criminalisation of women and girls in NI if they seek a termination of pregnancy in circumstances of serious foetal abnormality, rape or incest. It recommends that the Department of Health ensures that women and girls have access to safe abortion and post-abortion care services in these circumstances in NI in line with international human rights standards.”


Ms Harmon praised the efforts of the Commission since its inception nearly 20 years ago, and the work of women – such as Inez McCormick and Mo Mowlam – in developing Northern Ireland.

But it is what the Camberwell and Peckham MP says about the future that proved most interesting.

“Generally speaking I don’t agree with my generation telling the next generation what to do. We battled at our time, in our way. And it’s not for the next generation to follow in our footsteps – it’s for them to create their own path. But when I look back at all the progress we made I can see that there are some lessons I’ve learnt.

“One of them is that there’s always an overriding reason that we shouldn’t “interfere” in support of other women. There’s always a political imperative advanced that though it might be right in principle, it’s not right at this particular point to act in support of the quest for equality. Heeding those voices is applauded as “reasonable” as “teamly”. But the reality is that lack of solidarity weakens equality movements and postpones the day when they can achieve the rights that they seek.

“So, we were warned that putting gay marriage in the Equality Act would anger the catholic church in Scotland and thereby unsettle the Labour vote. We were warned that using our votes to support the demand of women in Northern Ireland for abortion would destabilise the finely-balanced, all-important political equilibrium within Northern Ireland and between Britain and Northern Ireland.  So we mustn’t get involved.

“We have always deferred on questions of devolution. That was the reason we didn’t, for example, extend the Equality Act to Northern Ireland. But the question we’re asking now is where does that leave you. If it leaves you failing to tackle deplorable discrimination against gay people how can that be right? If it leaves women in Northern Ireland without our support for abortion rights that we have had since 1967, how can that be right? If it leaves women in Northern Ireland held back by male dominated politics, how can that be right?

“There’s a new sense amongst women in Westminster that we cannot step aside when our sisters in Northern Ireland call for our support. I don’t know whether that is because there are more women MPs on all sides and that brings with it a new assertiveness, or whether it’s because the new generation of women are that much more distant from the violence of the division in Northern Ireland.

“But, whatever the reason, I think it promises significant and welcome change.  And the manifestation of this came with the change on abortion in England for Northern Irish women. The government had to accede to the demands, led by Stella Creasy MP, for women from Northern Ireland to get NHS abortions in England because if they didn’t we would vote on it, we had the numbers and they would lose.   

“Those who oppose change can, in my view, no longer rely on the assumption that Westminster will put constitutional sensitivities about rights. Women’s rights, gay rights are human rights, human rights are universal and we must champion in every part of the UK as well as every part of the world.”

Northern Ireland is, perhaps unwittingly, in the midst of great change. Global, national and regional pressures are all converging on our small patch of green and there will be major consequences for our society.

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