The DUP has said that a Westminster direction that Stormont must set up full abortion services in Northern Ireland has “undermined” devolution.
But Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party and Green Party have welcomed the move by the Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, with deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill stating that a “blockage” of women’s rights by the DUP had now been overcome.
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster, but the full services have not yet been centrally commissioned due to disagreements between the Executive parties.
Mr Lewis has now used new powers to direct ministers in Belfast to take the steps necessary to roll out abortion services across the region.
Carla Lockhart, an MP for the anti-abortion DUP, said the issue was one that local politicians should have been allowed to find consensus on.
“The Government’s insistence on interfering on devolved issues undermines the institutions. Indeed, cynically, some local parties know that by failing to engage constructively to find that local agreement, that the Government will deliver their objectives by March 2022 at the latest,” she said.
“What incentive have they now to give any regard to the pro-life views held by hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland?”
She added: “What we have in this statement from the Secretary of State is a further example of a government acting with no respect to the local electorate and locally elected politicians. The DUP stand ready to find a locally agreed way forward.”
Ms O’Neill said: “Finally women are going to get access to much-needed, modern, compassionate healthcare. Women here in the north have been failed for far too long.
“I think it’s regrettable that it has to come about this way, because of the blocking of legislation by the DUP and the failure of the Health Department to bring forward appropriate services for women.
“The British Government have a responsibility to deliver rights along with the Irish Government, so I think it is important that they have taken this step and I very much welcome the fact that women will get that access to healthcare.
“It has now been legislated for, the law is now there and it needs to be put into effect.”
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said he believed the delivery of services would now happen.
His party colleague, Robin Swann, is the Health Minister who has been ordered by Westminster to bring proposals for commission of services to the Executive.
Mr Beattie told the BBC: “Abortion is legal in Northern Ireland and therefore we need to have the services to make sure that they can be delivered.
“Robin (Swann) has brought it before the Executive previously and it has been blocked.
“Now he has been directed to bring it forward and it has been directed that it has to come before the Executive.”
Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw said: “It is imperative this issue is now placed on the Executive’s agenda and there is immediate sign-off.
“The last thing women here need are even further delays or the prospect of more legal action to avail of services.”
Green Party MLA Clare Bailey said: “The actions of the Secretary of State are welcomed – this direction is vital given the denial of access to services for women in Northern Ireland and it is necessary given that Westminster has a responsibility to ensure compliance with international human rights standards.”
But Jim Allister, leader of the TUV, said Mr Lewis’s actions had shown that devolution was a “sham”.
He added: “Brandon Lewis has made it clear that he has no regard for the powers of the Health Minister as he is directing him to secure the commissioning and availability of abortion in Northern Ireland.
“Frankly, if Mr Lewis can intervene like this, what’s the point of devolution?”