I remember, and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, may remember as well, that many years ago, on Belfast City Council, when it was proposed that the Brook clinic be able to establish itself to give advice to young women on a range of issues, including where they might have to go for abortions, my own party was supportive of the clinic. Then two older, rather socially conservative unionist councillors stood up. I imagined that I knew what they were going to say. One of them was Alderman Tommy Patton, and the other was Councillor Frank Millar. Both were solid, working-class men with impeccable loyalist credentials. Both of them said the same thing. They said, “I have come back too many early mornings from the shipyard and from my work and seen young girls bleeding in back alleys. If the Brook clinic coming to Belfast makes sure that never happens again, I am voting for it”.
The situation has changed a great deal in many ways, but not in every way, and we are dealing with one of the ways it has not changed—the legislation on abortion. The mood on abortion, however, has changed dramatically in Northern Ireland, even since the 2016 vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Not only has the Supreme Court declared that the United Kingdom is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights because of the position of Northern Ireland on abortion, but political party views have also changed.
It is true that the Democratic Unionist Party still takes the same position—indeed, a position upon which it imposes a party whip, which it is entitled to do. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, will know that, as a former chief whip of the party. The position of Sinn Féin, however, has changed quite strikingly, because when there was a referendum in the Republic of Ireland it changed the position. It said, “No, we are going to impose a whip on our party members to say that, whatever their conscience—and they are entirely entitled to have it—as public representatives they should vote for a change”. What Sinn Féin wants, of course, is a change to harmonise the law in the north with the law in the rest of the island.
It is also the case that the position of the SDLP—the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, will know this because her husband was a representative of the SDLP—has changed in that, while the party maintains the same position as party policy, it has opened the door for members who are elected representatives to speak to their own conscience on the question. The leader and the deputy leader and other significant colleagues have decided that in all conscience they can no longer support the party’s position on this issue.
The Ulster Unionist Party has also allowed it to be a question of conscience, and the Alliance Party always has, although the overwhelming majority of members and elected members vote for abortion in reasonable circumstances when the opportunity arises.
The situation has changed in Northern Ireland. As I said on same-sex marriage, I do not believe that most people, including in the nationalist community, will look on legislation here as being an imposition from this side of the water. Many will look on it as a harmonisation of legislation between north and south. That is why I ask the Minister, when he speaks about consultation, to ensure that the consultation does not look just at how far there is harmonisation with legislation on this side of the water but at how far there is harmonisation with legislation in the Republic of Ireland. This is not an idle question, because one thing that has not been mentioned when there has been talk about young women having to come to this side of the water for abortions is that the Health Minister in the Republic of Ireland, when the referendum was held and the legislation was changed there, said that they were prepared to welcome young women who needed to have abortions to come across the border.
Those who live here have no idea what an extraordinary change of position that was. The idea that young women in the north might be going south for abortions is almost incomprehensible to those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland. It just shows how hugely the situation has changed. We need to facilitate that change of attitudes. It is not a question of people being forced to have abortions. It is the opportunity to do so when it is needed. It is usually a very painful business emotionally. It does not do for us to make it any more painful or difficult. That is why I support the amendment but ask the Minister to ensure that in the consultation it is not just a question of harmonisation within the UK but harmonisation within these islands.