A number of church leaders have called on political leaders in Northern Ireland to restore the government in order to prevent sweeping new abortion legislation from taking effect later this month.
Though Northern Ireland is officially part of the United Kingdom, it is governed by a devolved and democratically-elected assembly which was set up in accordance with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – a peace deal that brought the brutal, 30-year-long civil conflict known as “The Troubles” to an end.
However, the two leading parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, brought the assembly to a grinding halt in 2017 after accusations of scandal and disagreements over a proposed Irish Language Act which would ensure the Gaelic language’s equality with English in Northern Irish civil society.
The protestant-majority DUP supports a continued union with the United Kingdom and values British culture as predominant – the party is also fiercely pro-life. Conversely, the Catholic-majority Sinn Fein party, which has historic links with the IRA paramilitary group, identifies as Irish and wishes to see Northern Ireland adopt more culture from the Republic of Ireland – it is also pro-choice.
Sinn Fein’s long-term goal is to see Northern Ireland unite with the Republic of Ireland – something that is fiercely opposed by the DUP and protestant community as a whole.
In light of the Assembly’s closure, and with no end to the stalemate in sight, British parliament members voted to legalize abortion across the country – the law is set to go into effect on October 21.
With the deadline looming, The Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches issued a joint statement against the proposed law change – many see it as a usurping of Northern Irish government and a return to “direct rule” from the British parliament.
“There is no evidence that these changes reflect the will of the people affected by them, as they were not consulted,” the churches said in their statement.
“We are calling on the Secretary of State to recall the Assembly before 21 October to provide an opportunity for the parties to take the necessary steps both to prevent these laws coming into effect and to find a better Northern Ireland solution for these challenging issues."
“Our Northern Ireland political parties have it in their own hands to do something about this," the leaders added. "They all need to take risks and make the compromises necessary to find an accommodation that will restore the devolved institutions."
The Presbyterian Church's general secretary, Reverend Trevor Gribben, called for compromise between the two parties in order to stop the liberalization of abortion across the traditionally Christian country.
"We're saying to all parties that people need to set aside their red lines," he said, according to the BBC. "The issue of unrestricted abortion is too serious to be having what are pointless debates over the Irish language ... the Irish language is no threat to me."
Last month, a massive 20,000-people-strong protest erupted outside Northern Ireland’s government buildings at Stormont in response to the proposed abortion law changes.
“It was tremendous to see so many uniting to send a clear and powerful message to our politicians that it is time to put differences aside and get the Assembly back up and running,” CARE NI Policy Officer, Mark Baillie, told Faithwire after attending the event.
“The decision by Westminster to impose one of the most liberal abortion regimes anywhere in the world on us without even consulting the people of NI is unacceptable. We were not asked, and they cannot presume to speak for us.”
Currently, abortion is all but completely illegal in Northern Ireland under the 1945 Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland). Exceptions can be made to save the life of the mother, or if continuing the pregnancy puts her at imminent risk of harm.
In 2016-2017, there were just 13 abortions carried out across Northern Ireland. However, in comparison, across both England and Wales, there was a staggering 200,000.
If the legislation gets passed, abortion will be made legal up to 28 weeks, making it one of the most liberal laws in Europe and even more widely available than the rest of the UK. In 2018, the traditionally Catholic Republic of Ireland legalized abortion by repealing the eighth amendment of its constitution via a referendum vote.
"People are very very concerned that we would become the region of the United Kingdom with the most liberal abortion laws – what would that say about Northern Ireland?” asked Northern Ireland’s First Minister and DUP leader, Arlene Foster, according to ITV News.
"We need to get back into the Assembly to make sure that that does not happen."
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