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Northern Ireland

The politically sensitive issue of abortion in Northern Ireland

Ken Murray, Dublin correspondent

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Pro-British politicians in Northern Ireland are on course for a fight with their governing Conservative ministers in London over a dispute that threatens an already bad relationship that has been strained in recent weeks by the consequences of Brexit. At issue is not ongoing calls from Irish republicans for a Referendum on unifying Ireland or if British union jack flags should fly over public buildings but the politically sensitive issue of abortion, as Ken Murray reports from Dublin.

It was former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who said in 1981 that “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley [London]”.

The Conservative & Unionist Party, to use its proper title, took the view that if Northern Ireland wants to function in the UK like England, Scotland and Wales, then it must do so under primary legislation passed in Westminster.

Roll on 40 years and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party in NI is kicking up a fuss as Conservative legislators in London plan to introduce abortion to the one part of the UK that remains out of line with GB on this matter!

Stephen Farry, an MP with the centrist Alliance Party in Northern Ireland said last week that despite resistance from the DUP, most women in Northern Ireland are in favour of the London Government stepping in on this matter.

"I would stress that there is large-scale support in Northern Ireland for these actions.

"It is simply not tenable to have a right on paper but not in practice and for different reproductive rights to exist across the UK."

The current controversy stems from measures agreed in Westminster in 2019 which would see terminations of pregnancies in Northern Ireland in all circumstances in the first 12 weeks.

However, the NI health Minister Robin Swann did not activate the legislation thus denying women in the province access to such services.

The Northern Ireland Assembly recently passed a DUP bill aimed at preventing abortion where a foetus has a non-fatal disability including Down's Syndrome.

Matters became heated last week when legislation, published by Boris Johnson’s Government in London, allows Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to intervene to ensure safe abortions take place across the UK in order to meet United Nations human rights principles.

The ultra-conservative and Presbyterian-influenced DUP in Northern Ireland threw a tantrum and vowed to strongly oppose the UK government's intervention in what it says is interference in a local devolved matter.

Speaking to media last week, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and DUP Leader Arlene Foster told the British Secretary of State for NI Brandon Lewis to keep his nose out of this issue.

"This is a hugely complex, controversial, legally challenging issue for the [Northern Ireland] executive,".

"But let us be very clear, it is for the executive. It is not for Brandon Lewis.

"He should back off."

The row has already caused division within the British Conservative Party. Former Transport Minister Sir John Hayes said it was "unjust" while Scott Benton MP for Blackpool South added that the new regulations were "a democratic and constitutional assault on Northern Ireland".

In response, Brandon Lewis responded by saying he had spoken to women and healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland whose experiences are "truly harrowing" with some attempting suicide after their flights to England to have an abortion were cancelled.

"Too many women and girls are still having to travel to other parts of the United Kingdom, to mainland Great Britain, to access this care.

"One story was of a much-wanted pregnancy where sadly doctors informed the mother that the baby would not survive outside of the womb. This woman had to travel to London without her network of family support in order to access healthcare.

"She described to me a harrowing ordeal. Unable to travel back on a flight to her home because of complications and bleeding, [she was] stranded in London alone, grieving and in pain," he said.

In contrast, pregnant women in Northern Ireland can now travel across the border in to the Republic where abortion is legally available on demand since December 2018.

The contentious issue comes to prominence as three unionist parties club together to seek a judicial review against the British conservative-led Government for creating the Northern Ireland Protocol or notional ‘border’ in the Irish Sea for trade purposes only.

They argue it isolates NI from GB and amounts to another incremental step towards a united Ireland, a development they would strongly oppose.

Defeat for unionists in this case is likely to further strain existing tense relations between Belfast and London and all that before the abortion issue is formally addressed.

Brexit

Brexit barriers in focus as Northern Ireland's DUP kicks off leadership contest

Reuters

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Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) Edwin Poots makes a statement to the media outside Stormont Castle in Belfast, Northern Ireland June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

Northern' Ireland's biggest party was set for its first ever leadership election after its Westminster chief Jeffrey Donaldson threw his hat into the ring, promising to focus on the divisive issue of post-Brexit trade barriers.

Donaldson will stand against Edwin Poots to lead the Democratic Unionist Party at a time of heightened instability in the British province and unionist anger over the installation of a customs border in the Irish Sea.

Both Donaldson and Poots, Northern Ireland's agriculture minister, stopped short of making detailed campaign promises. But Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe will be watching for any hardening of stances on Brexit or social issues including abortion that could alter the political balance ahead of elections next year.

The DUP currently leads Northern Ireland in a power-sharing government with its Irish nationalist rivals Sinn Fein.

Donaldson or Poots will take over the leadership from Arlene Foster who announced last week she was stepping down as Northern Ireland's First Minister at the end of June, bowing to pressure from party members unhappy at her leadership. Read more

Her departure has added to instability in the region, where angry young pro-British loyalists rioted in recent weeks, partly over the barriers that they feel have cut them off from the rest of the UK.

"I will develop and swiftly implement an agreed programme of meaningful reform and clear policy direction on key challenges like the protocol," Donaldson said in a video announcement, referring to the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Like Foster, Donaldson, 58, is a former member of the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party. He was part of the negotiating team that stuck a deal to prop up the government of former British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017.

Once the DUP's support was no longer needed, May's successor Boris Johnson broke the party's "blood red line" and agreed to erect the trade barriers.

Poots, 55, is one of a number of DUP ministers who have protested against the Brexit arrangements by refusing to attend meetings with Irish counterparts established under the 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.

Poots, a young earth creationist who rejects the theory of evolution, announced he was standing last week.

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Northern Ireland

It looks like being an interesting political summer for Northern Ireland

Ken Murray, Dublin correspondent

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The brutal shafting of Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster last week by her colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party look set to see the British province enter a period of political uncertainty.

As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, the ‘coup’ could see the DUP fall from its lofty perch as the largest political party in Northern Ireland and could leave people in the province without a devolved administration at Stormont Belfast for the fourth time since 1999.

Following on what has been reported here so many times over the past two months, all is not well in Northern Ireland.

Pro-British unionists who backed Brexit didn’t exactly get what they voted for in 2016 and when customs checks on goods entering NI from GB were unexpectedly imposed by the Conservative Government in London last January, angry alarm bells went off in Belfast.

This unwanted ‘reward’ for loyalty to the Crown and propping up Theresa May’s Government between 2016 and 2019 was seen as an act of betrayal by Boris Johnson.

Many unionists felt the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol has isolated the province further away from GB and inched it a step closer to a united Ireland!

 With rioting on the streets and growing anger over fears of a sell-out, somebody in Northern Ireland unionism was going to have to take the blame.

The name in the firing line was First Minister and leader of the staunchly pro-British ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party, 50-year old Mrs. Arlene Foster!

When a motion by the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party to ban gay conversion therapy was voted on in the Stormont parliament last month, Arlene Foster’s decision to abstain was seen by the extreme hardliners in her Party as the final straw!

As the evangelical bible-gripping wing of her Party saw it, her time was up for being sympathetic and supportive of homosexuals!

A petition to oust her orchestrated by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots (55) was signed and backed by 80 per cent of her parliamentary colleagues forcing Arlene Foster to unexpectedly announce she plans to step down as Party Leader at the end of this month and as First Minister at the end of June. The move has caused much animosity within the DUP.

Her Party colleague Sammy Wilson said in a statement she had been “carrying the can for things which were beyond her control in the Covid restrictions and has been the lightning rod for criticism of the difficulties the Assembly had.”

Bar a shock, protestant zealot Edwin Poots will replace her as DUP Leader though speculation is rife he may appoint Assembly colleague Paul Givan to the position of First Minister.

However, if Poots’ dull persona and political positions in the past are anything to go by, Northern Ireland may be heading down a very uncertain road!

Poots, who doesn’t believe in climate change, is on record as saying the Earth is only 6,000 years old! As Health Minister in 2011, he opted to maintain a ban on gay men in Northern Ireland giving blood for fear of infecting the wider community with HIV!

Last year he caused uproar when he said in bigoted fashion that catholics were ‘super spreaders’ of Covid saying they infected others at a rate of 6 compared to one for every protestant!

In 2013, he caused something of a stir when he told David McCann of the ‘Sluggerotoole.com’ website that his greatest achievement as culture Minister “was burying the Irish Language Act.”

Those last words may come back to haunt him.

The belief is that in order to work with a new DUP First Minister, Sinn Féin is likely to insist on a deadline for introducing the Act which would see dual language displays on road signs, State paper, greater penetration in schools and usage in wider Northern Ireland society, promotion etc, backed with public money and legislation.

Despite implementation of the Act being agreed between the DUP, Sinn Féin, British and Irish Governments in January of last year as part of the New Deal, New Approach to running NI, for many hard-line unionists in the Party, this plan is a step too far.

Any proposal to flourish the language would be seen by DUP hardliners as yet another step in the ‘Irish-isation’ of Northern Ireland which has been under British rule since 1921 and therefore would be a further unwelcome step towards unification with the Republic.

If Sinn Féin can’t get a commitment on commencing the Act with the new DUP First Minister, it’s highly likely they will walk away, the Assembly will collapse thus forcing an election.

With the pro-unification Sinn Fein Party tipped to win the most seats to the Assembly for the first time ever next time around due to changing demographics, the toppled DUP will likely look for someone to blame all over again for the expected loss of seats and this time the name in the frame is expected to be Edwin Poots!

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP at Westminster entered the leadership race earlier this week meaning there will be an actual contest to front the Party for the first time since its foundation in 1971.

Seen as a moderate conservative within the Party, Donaldson’s entry in to the leadership race is likely to split the unity that has prevailed within its ranks since the Party was founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley.

Paisley, who died in 2014 and had to be forcibly removed once from a sitting of the European Parliament in 1988 for insulting Pope John Paul, was seen by many observers as a man whose rhetoric and actions prolonged the Troubles in Northern Ireland which lasted 25 years.

He also established the Free Presbyterian Church many of whose members are staunch DUP.

However, the belief is that Poots will emerge winner. Whether he can bring unity to the divided DUP remains to be seen.

According to former footballer, legal counsel and TV personality Joe Brolly writing in the Irish Sunday Independent, “The DUP is a cult. Like all cults, the outside world is irrelevant.

“Like all cults, sooner or later it self-destructs since by definition, it cannot adapt to a changing world.”

Looks like being an interesting Summer!

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Statement by Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič following the conclusion of the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement

EU Reporter Correspondent

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European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič warmly welcomes the ratification of the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, which will now be fully applicable as of 1 May 2021. This comes after an overwhelming vote of consent by the European Parliament on 27 April and subsequent Council decision today, thereby concluding the ratification process. The EU and the UK will exchange letters to that effect.  

"The ratification of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement is good news for European citizens and businesses. It provides a solid foundation for our longstanding friendship, co-operation and partnership with the United Kingdom on the basis of shared interests and values.

"In practice, the Agreement helps avoid significant disruptions, while protecting European interests and upholding the integrity of our Single Market. It also ensures a robust level playing field, by maintaining high levels of protection in areas, such as climate and environmental protection, social and labour rights, or state aid. Moreover, the Agreement includes effective enforcement, a binding dispute settlement mechanism and the possibility for both parties to take remedial measures.

"Democratic scrutiny will continue to be key in the implementation phase of the Agreement in order to ensure faithful compliance. Unity among EU institutions and member states will remain a cornerstone during this new chapter in our EU-UK relations." 

Vice President Šefčovič reiterates that the European Commission looks forward to a strong, constructive and collaborative partnership with the United Kingdom, based on mutual trust and respect. We have far more in common than that which divides us. He will reach out this week to Lord David Frost, co-chair of the EU-UK Partnership Council, to prepare the launch of its work, including the work of Specialized Committees.  

Finally, the Commission will continue to work tirelessly for joint solutions so that the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland in particular, is also fully implemented and works for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.

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