In the aftermath of the vote in Ireland, I saw a quote from a woman in Northern Ireland to the effect that she had the right to hold both UK and Irish passports and to be citizens of either or both, but she now did not have the right to choose that women in either jurisdiction have. That quote was third or fourth-hand by the time I saw it, but it seems to be an indicator of where many women in Northern Ireland find themselves. “Stranded” might be the best description of how they see their plight. Their plight is my plight, and their fight is my fight. If they suffer, I suffer, too. I stand with the women who feel themselves shorn of the rights they see across the border in Ireland and across the Irish sea.
I wonder, though, why this should be seen as an emergency debate. The referendum in Ireland did not change the conditions in Northern Ireland. Nothing has changed for women in Northern Ireland in terms of access to health services, except that they now have another geographically close comparison. Nothing has improved for them; nothing, happily, has got worse for them. Nothing has changed for them, more is the pity.
Yes, this is a very sensitive issue. Our sisters therefore deserve a little more consideration than a rushed debate. Who here, other than Members serving constituencies on the other side of the Irish sea, has any real perception of the issues and possible consequences surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland? I stand with my sisters in Northern Ireland, and I absolutely endorse their right to choose, but I do not claim to know their situation better than they do. I endorse their right to help shape the legislation they live under, but it is not for me or for anyone here to tell them how to do that. Support I can offer and encouragement I will give, but legislation has to be with the agreement of the people. Government is only with the consent of the people.
I hear those who say this is a human rights issue, and I agree. That is why we must leave the judgment on that in the hands of the Supreme Court, which has a duty to examine the reference from the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland and will give guidance that must be followed. As we know, the judgment will be handed down on Thursday. We have two days to wait.
A little look at how Ireland approached amending its constitution would be instructive for many in this Chamber and, indeed, in the Chamber next door. Ireland’s move to allow abortion to be legislated for—that being the substance of the constitutional amendment, as has been pointed out—began with a citizens’ assembly. It was the people who had their hands on the tiller. This was no political campaign or activist-led agitation; this was people power from the start, and it should be a lesson to anyone who wants to effect major change. The details of the assembly are online at citizensassembly.ie, which I recommend to anyone who would like to think a little more about how nations should change direction.
As we have heard, Ireland is now free to choose whether to legislate to allow terminations, and I understand legislation is currently being drafted. Ireland does not yet have that law in place and, as the Secretary of State mentioned, the debate is just getting started. I note that the Taoiseach has indicated that allowing women from Northern Ireland to access such services across the border is being considered, and he points out that women from Northern Ireland regularly access other health services in Ireland and that there is no reason why they should be denied any new services.
We should not, however, think that Ireland’s legislation is done and dusted. The drafting is not yet complete, never mind its passage, but that legislative process is a matter for Ireland, for the Irish people and for the people they have elected to serve them. Likewise, the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter and is an issue for the people of the Northern Ireland and the people they elect to the Assembly. It is a matter devolved and, frankly, it matters not a jot whether the decisions made at Stormont, when it is sitting, are agreeable to Members sitting here. That is the point of devolution, a point that some Members of this place have been spectacularly slow to appreciate at times. The decisions of devolved Administrations are taken for reasons that people in those devolved nations understand from their point of view, and they are taken using evidence that the people, politicians and policy makers of those devolved nations consider important. That principle stands, and it can be seen in the way in which Scotland has led on public health issues.