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I do not think there is a difference across the House in wanting to see the Stormont Assembly and Executive up and running. We all agree that it is important that the people of Northern Ireland have that Government restored. We also think, however, that the women of Northern Ireland deserve some honesty about what will happen to their human rights, which, in this House in July, we pledged to uphold. Tonight, the Minister has shown that what most of us feared might happen—the slow unpicking of the commitment the House made to ensure that we treat all UK citizens equally when it comes to their ability to make choices about their own bodies.
For the avoidance of doubt, let us set out some clear principles. It is written in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 that this is about the Executive reforming, not the Assembly. Let us be specific: it is about having a First Minister, a Deputy First Minister and 10 Ministers with departmental responsibilities by the end of next Monday—nothing less, nothing more. That is not the preserve of the Government, or one single party, to deliver. It is about power sharing. There is absolutely nothing in the Act about mandating the Assembly to take on the legislation post
There is plenty in the Act about the importance of the role of the Secretary of State, and I quote section 9(7):
“The Secretary of State must carry out the duties imposed by this section expeditiously, recognising the importance of doing so for protecting the human rights of women in Northern Ireland.”
What does that mean in practice? What have we seen over the past couple of days, with this sudden flurry of interest in trying to get the Executive up and running?
I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here, because I had hoped that he would account for his words on Twitter—[Interruption.] I had hoped that he would account for his words because he said something very powerful and threatening. He said that he understood that Church leaders were worried about abortion reform and that he would be
“working all week…to ensure that I do everything I can to encourage political leaders to get back into an Executive and ensure that they can shape the abortion laws for Northern Ireland.”
People might think that that is a worthy sentiment, but given that if the Assembly is reconstituted by Monday, the regulations on same-sex marriage will also fall, it is telling that he highlighted only abortion. Only women’s rights have become a bargaining chip in the Brexit process.
The Minister tells us that he has been talking to women’s groups, but he cannot name a single one. We cannot find a single women’s group in Northern Ireland that has had a meeting with the Secretary of State, that has been consulted or that the Government have talked to. It is very clear, however, that they are listening to the Churches.