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Restricting abortion rights unlikely to be a priority for the DUP-Tory pact

Despite the Twitterstorm, Owen Paterson did not say so – and the issue, as far as the DUP is concerned, is already resolved.

By Patrick Maguire

Theresa Villiers and Owen Paterson, David Cameron’s Northern Ireland secretaries, had one thing in common: they were ministers he did not rate but could not sack. Both are now on the backbenches, but keep an eye on their old portfolio. Neither, however, will dictate the terms of whatever agreement is reached between their party and the DUP. 

That fact has not stopped people assuming otherwise. In an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Paterson appeared to suggest that there could be a debate on reducing the legal time limits for abortion in the next parliament. “You might get a debate, I suppose,” he said, “on further reduction of abortion times as medical science advances”.

His heavily caveated conjecture has taken on a life of its own. “Tory minister on #r4today says they will have a vote on reducing time limits on abortion in exchange for DUP support,” read one tweet, shared almost 4,000 times.

Only Paterson is not a minister, almost certainly will not made one, and did not frame the putative vote as a quid quo pro. And by any chalk, the government will not need to offer such a vote anyway: nowhere in the DUP’s lists of bargaining priorities for 2010 and 2015, when hung parliaments were thought likely, is reform of the laws on a woman’s right to choose mentioned.

Why? Because the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act do not apply in Northern Ireland, and the DUP is opposed to their extension – as is, officially at least, the moderate nationalist SDLP. There is no point in the DUP wasting its substantial political capital on the issue as, depressingly and in spite of a 2015 court ruling, it does not need to. And as as Paterson himself said this morning, any vote would be a free vote. There are enough Conservative MPs opposed to abortion – or at least in favour of reducing the 24-week limit – for the outcome not to hinge on the DUP’s 10. 

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What the government can do, however, is try to ensure that no legislation that would extend the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland reaches the Commons floor. This has happened before, and under a Labour government: in 2008 the DUP, who then had nine MPs, were reportedly given assurances that there would be no vote on extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland in exchange for backing 42 day detention without trial for terror suspects. 

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Should May’s government be desparate, it might employ similar inducement – but it is not a live parliamentary issue now. Ironically, only in the event of a Labour victory might this have been the case: the party’s draft manifesto seemed to imply that it would be willing to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland unilaterally, and its watered-down final version pledged to work with parties in the assembly in order to do so. The Tories, unsurprisingly, made no such pledge.

So while a Tory pact with the DUP is undoubtedly bad news for the pro-choice movement in Northern Ireland, abortion rights are unlikely to figure all that prominently in the negotiations to come. Campaigners fear, however, that the presence of the unionists as guarantors of Conservative government will embolden other anti-choice MPs on the government backbenches. Whether that will happen depends on the longevity of an arrangement that, in any case, will be incredible difficult to make tenable.