My Lords, in March 1979, four days after Airey Neave was brutally murdered in the precincts of Parliament, I made my maiden speech in the House of Commons.
I reflected on the need to find political solutions to the endless cycle of violence in Northern Ireland. During the years that followed, I served as a spokesman on Irish affairs. In 1985 I was appointed by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, to be a member of the commission that served under the chairmanship of the late Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, which produced the report What Future for Northern Ireland?
Our commission concluded that progress could be made if, instead of encamped and embedded hostility to the other community, the respectful place of both traditions in a devolved power-sharing institution could be recognised.
While endless legislation was rushed through as emergency legislation, none of it addressed the fundamental issue.
Eight years later, on 20 March 1993, the shocking waste of innocent life was underlined when a bomb was left in litter bin in a shopping area of Warrington.
Two children, three year-old Johnathan Ball and 12 year-old Tim Parry, were murdered. As I stood with John Major at their funeral, it was clear that the finest memorial to those boys would be renewed efforts to end a conflict which, over 30 years, claimed 3,600 lives, injured and maimed thousands more, and left countless lives scarred and disfigured in the way that my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames described earlier.
The Downing Street declaration of December 1993 paved the way for the Good Friday agreement, signed on 10 April 1998.
The painstaking and patient work of a succession of Secretaries of State, some of whom have been in your Lordships’ Chamber this afternoon, the statesmanship of men like John Hume and the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and ultimately the willingness of the Reverend Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness to make devolution work, set aside the forced choice between British and Irish identities, with two tribes looking out at one another in enmity and hate—all gains alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, in his moving speech.
I hold both an Irish and a British passport, as do my children. In two world wars, my grandfather and father fought in the British Army, and an uncle died in the Royal Air Force.
My mother was a native Irish speaker. Her family suffered extreme poverty in an area where Irish nationalism and republicanism had been nurtured by famine in one century and brutality in the next.
So, more than most, I have always had to hold in tension a love of both traditions. From both sides of my family I was taught to abjure violence and to uphold the sanctity of every human life.
I am troubled to see the gains of those years now at risk. Here we are again, rushing legislation through this House in 24 hours flat, with the House of Commons having done the same.
I was struck—it has not been referred to yet—by the report of the Select Committee on the Constitution of your Lordships’ House, published only yesterday. It stated:
“We question whether the speed at which the Government wishes to pass this Bill is necessary … more time (even with a fast-track timetable) could have been made available for parliamentary scrutiny of this Bill”—
which is surely our job. It continues:
“We emphasise that in any other circumstances provisions such as these which challenge established constitutional principles would not be acceptable”.
That brings me to Clause 4, which the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Belmont, just referred to, as did other noble Lords.
It purports to provide guidance to members of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland in relation to the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861: namely, the provisions banning abortion—the deliberate ending of the life of a child in the womb.
This is a serious issue. This is the law of this land. “Procuring miscarriage” is an offence unless two doctors agree that one of the defences set out in the Abortion Act 1967 applies. So how can the Secretary of State issue guidance to another jurisdiction advising on the repeal of legislation that is current law in her own jurisdiction?
As the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said earlier, this is smoke and mirrors—and, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, it makes a nonsense. This is an absurdity, and on this point alone these ill-thought-through amendments ought to be dismissed.
In the mid-1990s, I accompanied a cross-community delegation of Members of Parliament—from the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Official Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party—to see John Major.
We were given his assurance that he and the Conservative Government would insist that abortion would remain a matter to be settled in Northern Ireland.
It troubles me that Clause 4 seeks to unsettle that agreement. In a Bill of such a limited and temporary nature, how can anyone reasonably suggest that an issue as contentious and sensitive as abortion should even be included for consideration?
In the Commons, the amendments that were introduced came at such short notice that many MPs did not even know that the House would divide. Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State, was right when she said that if the amendments were passed, which they were, it would put the Northern Ireland Civil Service in “an impossible position”. She went on to say that,
“the Bill cannot force Northern Ireland Departments to change the law”,
as the new clause seeks to do—a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in his remarks earlier. The Secretary of State said:
“It would be totally contrary to the rule of law and the way the independence of the civil service across the whole United Kingdom operates”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/10/18; col. 385.]
In March of this year, 47 Members of this House, including former Cabinet Ministers, co-signed a letter to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland noting that legislation from Westminster would severely destabilise the devolution agreement.
The Prime Minister says it would not be right for the United Kingdom Government to undermine the settlement agreement.
We have heard many references during the debate to things such as human rights. In December we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that everyone has the right to life.
There is no right to abortion in human rights law: let us be clear about that. Nowhere does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights refer to abortion being a human rights question.
There will be a chance to return to these issues in Committee, but let me conclude.
Noble Lords do not have to agree with my substantive opposition to the taking of the life of a child in the womb, up to and even during birth in the case of a child with a disability—which results, in Great Britain, in one abortion every three minutes, or around 40 in the two hours that we have been debating this Bill so far, or some 9 million since 1967—or my noting that if that legislation had applied in Northern Ireland, 100,000 people would not be alive today who were born because the legislation does not apply there.
Noble Lords do not have to agree with my view about this to be concerned about the provisions in this Bill.
As parliamentarians, we have a duty to pass laws that make sense, a duty to uphold the principles of subsidiarity, a duty to resist the making of laws on the hoof, a duty to insist on proper scrutiny and debate, a duty to contest ideology and sloganeering, and a duty to respect the people of Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin’s decision to suspend Peadar Toibin for going against party policy on abortion underlines, yet again, the aggressive intolerance of the political classes.
When the right to conscientiously object to the taking of an innocent life is suppressed, it tells you all you need to know about intolerance and ideology.
Parties – including those that call themselves liberal – and which deny conscience, suppress free speech, and silence debate about the humanity of a child in the womb, undermine the very foundations on which free, diverse, and democratic societies are built. Peadar Toibin deserves our admiration for standing up to this attempt to silence him.
The Burkean: July 2018 – what Edmund Burke might have made of Britain and Ireland’s abortion laws:
The mutant ideology that’s driving MPs to impose abortion on Northern Ireland: published June 15th 2018
The ‘alt-liberals’ are all-knowing, self-regarding and autocratic
The Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan of Springbank recently remarked that the province’s insistence that the only lawful justification for abortion should be a threat to the mother’s life was “Victorian”. This ill-considered and patronising remark was not random. It was part of a concerted attempt to force abortion legislation on Northern Ireland.
The Conservative MPs Justine Greening and Amber Rudd have joined forces with Labour’s Stella Creasy, who goes even further, and who has been demanding the repeal of the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act. This would decriminalise abortion across the United Kingdom, removing the few remaining protections for an unborn child, and potentially permitting abortion up to term and the removal of conscience provisions.
Creasy and her allies have form, having persuaded the Conservative Government to pay £1,400 to pregnant women wishing to travel from Northern Ireland to Britain to end the life of their unborn child (with no comparable sum for women continuing their pregnancy).
In response, Theresa May has sent mixed messages, saying she supports change but then, under pressure from the Democratic Unionist MPs and Conservative MPs Fiona Bruce and Maria Caulfield, stating that the change should only be made by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly, not by Westminster.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right in insisting that abortion remain a devolved matter. I once served as a Northern Ireland party spokesman and was later part of the cross-community, cross-party delegation that successfully persuaded John Major to make abortion a devolved matter (as it is in Scotland too). This was part of the discussions around the 1995 framework documents that proposed North-South institutions and a Northern Ireland Assembly – paving the way for the Good Friday Agreement. Those trying to unpick these sensitive matters should tread with great care.
Significantly, the most recent vote on abortion within any UK legislature was 18 months ago in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It voted against a change to the law. But British political parties, once champions of devolution, have turned full circle when it comes to abortion.
This is only the latest example of what the philosopher John Gray calls “alt-liberalism”, a mutant version of liberal ideology: all-knowing, self-regarding and autocratic. It’s the phenomenon that led to Tim Farron packing his bags as Liberal Democrat leader, saying it had become impossible to reconcile his Christian faith with this new ideology. One Labour MP told me that he daren’t say what he believes for fear of retaliation. Free speech is going the same way as devolution and conscience.
The judiciary, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly politicised. Last week the Supreme Court found that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had no legal standing in bringing its case challenging the North’s abortion laws. Yet this did not deter judges from offering a series of non-binding opinions.
Paradoxically, the court’s unanimous finding that there is no human rights requirement to allow for abortion on the grounds of disability has implications for Great Britain, where abortion up to birth on grounds of disability is both barbaric and discriminatory.
The court reaffirmed that there is no human right to abortion and there is nothing in the judgment to say that abortion on request is required by human rights law – but it’s worth remembering that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights holds that everyone has the right to life.
I recently spoke at meetings in Lisburn and Belfast organised by the group Both Lives Matter. Great dismay was expressed about the abortion industry coming to Northern Ireland. A report was cited from the Times highlighting the 22 employees working for Marie Stopes International who were paid salaries of more than £100,000 in 2015.
The chief executive earned £420,000 (nearly four times that of the Prime Minister). Also mentioned were the conclusions of a Care Quality Commission investigation which found dead unborn babies in open bins in Marie Stopes abortion clinics. The commission reported that there had been nearly 400 botched abortions in just two months.
So before we excoriate Northern Ireland and its “Victorian” laws, think of the province as the perfect control group in a grim social science experiment that had a starting date of 1968. Fifty years later, in Northern Ireland’s control group there are 100,000 people alive (5 per cent of the population) who would not have been born if our laws had applied.
By contrast, in Great Britain there have been almost 9 million abortions: one abortion every three minutes, 20 every hour and 600 every working day, with one in five pregnancies now ended by abortion. We have abortion up to birth in the case of babies with disabilities – leading to 90 per cent of babies with Down’s syndrome being aborted – and of little girls merely because of their gender.
With perfect laboratory conditions, you would carefully study the evidence, look at the outcomes and draw conclusions. Again, one hundred thousand people are alive in Northern Ireland who would be dead had the 1967 Abortion Act applied there. Why would anyone want to change that – and what right do we have to impose such laws upon the people of Northern Ireland?
Human Beings Are Not Trash
This moving story, reported by the BBC, about a baby who survived an abortion underlines both the vulnerable humanity of the lives we end and the reality that there is no such thing as a safe abortion for a baby in the womb. This woman began her life as discarded clinical waste but the actions of a good nurse and a loving family point to the radical alternatives we should be able to offer the babies whose lives are ended every three minutes in Britain.