AMANDA FERGUSON in Belfast
Sunday, March 21, 2021
A ‘cross-community’ veto mechanism used by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to block coronavirus restrictions proposals in Northern Ireland last year was also used in three votes to block abortion services in the region, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed.
The following is the March 2021 response from Stormont's Executive Office to a freedom of information request it received in November 2020.
1a. The number of times the ‘St Andrews Veto’ (i.e. the above procedure provided for under para 2.12 Ministerial code) has been instigated in the period January 2020 – 18 November 2020.
1b (i) The dates on which it occurred
6 April 2020
1 June 2020
10 November 2020
11 November 2020
1(b) (ii) The subject matter being voted on
6 April 2020: Options for Introducing a Limited Early Medical Abortion Service for Women in Northern Ireland during the COVID-19 Emergency Period (3 cross-community votes taken)
1 June 2020: EU Exit Transition period
10 November 2020: the COVID epidemic and the impact of different interventions and recommendations
11 November 2020: COVID-19 Restrictions
Daniel Holder of human rights non-governmental organisation, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), said under the 1998 Belfast - Good Friday - Agreement, cross-community vetoes were supposed to be safeguards linked to compliance with human rights and equality standards.
“That was never properly implemented.
“What the DUP managed to do after St Andrews was flip this intention on its head and instead use vetoes to block measures that actually advance or protect rights; including the right to health.
“The information released under FOI shows that on three separate votes last year the so-called 'St Andrews veto' was used to block the roll out of abortion services in NI, something which is legally required following a UN ruling in 2018 on women’s reproductive rights here.
“We have long called for an end to this particular veto, which has become a tool of the opponents of rights and equality - the opposite of what was envisaged under the Good Friday Agreement."
Green Party NI leader Clare Bailey said she is “not at all surprised the veto was used to block further progress on the rights of women in Northern Ireland”.
“We know that women in Northern Ireland have less rights than in those in Great Britain.
“I have no faith that the Northern Ireland Executive will ever sort this issue out and we now continue to look to Westminster where responsibility for human rights lies.
“If a petition of concern is lodged in the Chamber we know by who and why.
“Those who used the veto at the Executive to block abortion rights should have the courage of their convictions and let women know who they are.”
The five executive parties - DUP, Sinn Féin, Alliance, UUP and SDLP - have been asked for comment.
UPDATE - responses to amanda.ie:
A Sinn Féin statement said: “Sinn Féin, including ministers and the party President, are clearly on the record and in favour of the immediate provision of the modern compassionate health services that women are legally entitled to.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said: "I was clear at Executive the commissioning of termination of pregnancy services which are now legal should proceed as a matter of urgency. The change in the law means women facing a crisis pregnancy had a legitimate expectation they should receive the healthcare they need without travelling to GB and there was a duty on the Health Minister to commission those services.
"This is another example of where the structures in Stormont actually prevent progress being made, allowing one party to veto progress even in areas where there is a legal imperative to act and where failure to do so adds to the anxiety and stress of people facing an incredibly difficult and often traumatic situation."
An SDLP spokesman said: “The SDLP Minister voted in favour of providing healthcare services for women as required under law. The SDLP rejects the repeated abuse of the veto at the Executive by the DUP and urges all Executive parties to fulfil their legal obligations.”
DUP: Awaiting response.
UUP: Awaiting response.
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