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There is no need for an abortion referendum in Northern Ireland

Any poll would be non-binding and is constitutionally unneccessary.

By Patrick Maguire

Talk of a poll on Irish unification caused headaches for Theresa May earlier this month. Now her own MPs are calling on her to hold a referendum that would unite Ireland in another respect – extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland. 

The overwhelming victory for repeal in last week’s referendum in the Republic – and the continuing absence of a devolved assembly at Stormont – has fuelled calls for a poll on lifting Northern Ireland’s draconian prohibition on abortion.

It’s an idea that’s been kicked around in Westminster before – last December Owen Smith, in his previous guise as shadow Northern Ireland secretary, suggested that a consultative poll on legalising abortion could serve as a “means of pressing change while respecting devolution”. 

Such suggestions have hitherto had little pick-up. But since the referendum in the Republic exposed the anomalous arrangements in the North, Conservative MPs have started peddling the suggestion too. The thinking goes something like this: without a functioning assembly, the people should decide, and they’d probably vote yes to liberalisation. 

Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the health select committee, said “The people of Northern Ireland who deserve to have their voices heard through a referendum in the absence of a democratically elected NI Assembly”. Maria Miller, the chair of the women and equalities select committee, said: “At the very least people in Northern Ireland should be allowed a referendum”. Heidi Allen, one of the pro-EU mutineers, said “it is time for them to put the question to their citizens to see whether public opinion indeed matches DUP policy”.

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Not only are these calls misguided, they’re also unnecessary. The Supreme Court could soon force the government to act. But even failing that, there would be no requirement for an abortion referendum in Northern Ireland as there was in the Republic. The North’s ban on abortion is not constitutional but instead rooted in criminal law. Nor are UK plebiscites binding anyway. All any poll would do is protract and exacerbate a singularly unpleasant debate for no good reason. Why make people haggle for basic civil rights when a bitter and potentially inconclusive struggle to legislate would follow in any case?

Nor is the government bound by precedent. Civil partnerships, for instance, were introduced unilaterally from Westminster in 2005, while devolution was suspended. While not entirely analogous, it underlines the fact that the argument that the political vacuum at Stormont means there must be a referendum is a bit of a canard, to put it lightly. Only the government’s lack of political will is stopping it from acting now. 

Advocates of a referendum are also ignoring a fairly crucial point: nobody is agreed on a question. If aping the Republic is the strategy, then new legislation would have to be drafted first. If it’s intended as a blunt mechanism to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to the North, then it’s worth remembering that plenty of politicians outside the DUP would be opposed too – Sinn Fein, for instance, are opposed to simply extending the 1967 Act. And would the result in Ireland be quite as clear-cut had the proposed limit been 24 weeks, rather than 12?

In this political context, the debate over just how Northern Ireland’s abortion laws should be liberalised will be long and painful enough as it is. There is no need or justification for prolonging it by holding an unnecessary and non-binding referendum too.

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