On 21st June 2022 the House of Lords debated the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022, alongside a motion from Baroness O’Loan ‘that this House regrets that the Regulations (1) disregard the statutory role of the Northern Ireland Assembly and ignore the devolution settlement, and (2) make substantial constitutional changes via secondary legislation’. The Bishop of Blackburn spoke and voted in favour of Baroness O’Loan’s motion. At the end of the debate the Regulations were approved by the House and the motion was rejected by 28 to 181 votes.
The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I am conscious that it is not commonplace for Prelates to comment on matters that extend to Northern Ireland only. However, what made me reluctant to speak on this matter is the same driving force that has brought me to speak—the fact that this was, and should be again, a devolved matter. My desire and aim today is not to speak around the rights and wrongs of the matter but to state my discomfort that this debate is happening in this place at all.
I believe the mandate for decision-making on this matter lies in Northern Ireland, with the newly elected Executive. I would much rather see increased efforts towards their establishment than our making decisions on their behalf. Much was said in this place, and in print and online media, about the fact that the regulations we seek to amend today came through this House and the other place when there was no sitting Executive in Northern Ireland. I was one of those frustrated at the timing, and I feel that it happened when there was no sitting Executive precisely because they would never pass such legislation. It was imposed, and these regulations continue to impose on Northern Irish people in what I believe is an unacceptable way.
The point could not be made more clearly than in the first proposed amendment in the regulations before us:
“The fact that a matter has not been brought to the attention of, or discussed and agreed by, the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly is to be disregarded”.
I am no stranger to legal language, but this does not make good reading. On top of this, we are also asked to support amendments which place financial demands on the devolved health service to fund decisions thrust upon it.
For these reasons, I am happy to see the amendment expressing regret from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. I fully support it, because no word can better describe how I feel about these regulations coming to this place than “regret”. I am happy for those in Northern Ireland to disregard my comments if they are considered unhelpful or unsolicited, but for this House to put into statute that the views of the Northern Ireland Executive should be disregarded in this way seems to me wholly wrong.