Senior female Conservative MPs have warned that Theresa May’s opposition to calls for relaxing Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws breachesthe UK government’s “confidence and supply” agreement with the Democratic Unionist party.
After last year’s snap election, the UK prime minister struck a deal with the DUP that secured the Conservatives a working parliamentary majority in exchange for extra funding for Northern Ireland.
But one former minister said Conservative MPs had supported the deal with the socially conservative DUP on the basis that it would not influence the government’s social policies.
“We accepted the DUP agreement with the expressed point it would not be at the expense of any equalities progress and we expect that to be stuck to,” the ex-minister said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Another senior Conservative urged Mrs May to “take action” and “depoliticise the issue”.
Meanwhile, some DUP politicians have warned that there could be “consequences” for the party’s backing of Brexit legislation if Mrs May gives into demands for abortion reform.
Mrs May is under increasing pressure to give parliament a vote to bring Northern Ireland’s abortion laws in line with the rest of the UK, after the Republic of Ireland voted last week to overturn the country’s eighth amendment, which bans abortion in most cases.
Under current rules, a pregnancy in Northern Ireland can only be terminated if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a chance of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Abortions carried out up to 24 weeks have been legal in England, Wales and Scotland since the 1967 Abortion Act. Terminations can occur after 24 weeks if there is a substantial risk of foetal abnormalities, or if the mother’s life is at risk.
Downing Street have said that abortion laws in Northern Ireland are a matter for the devolved assembly in Belfast, which has been suspended since January of last year.
But the former minister suggested there were “enough” people in Mrs May’s cabinet calling for reform who deserved to be “listened to”.
It is understood that Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland minister, is sympathetic to calls for change.
Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons health and social care committee, said: “My first preference is for parliament to just get on with it and argue this is a human rights issue, which trumps the devolution issue.”
A group of several senior Tory MPshave also requested a meeting with Mrs May to urge her to consider steps to allow a public referendum.
“It’s the referendum route that’s best as it genuinely gives the people of Northern Ireland the choice for themselves and given there’s no functioning government then makes most sense respecting devolution, even beyond a Westminster vote,” said one Tory MP, adding that Mrs May “needs to realise unless she takes that better route, a vote in Westminster will end up being inevitable anyway”.
Heidi Allen, another Conservative MP, said Northern Ireland is “considerably behind the rest of the nation on this issue”, adding: “I feel strongly it is time for them to put the question to their citizens to see whether public opinion indeed matches DUP policy.”