Devolution cannot stand in the way of human rights – Christine Jardine

The UK Supreme Court and the United Nations have both warned that domestic abuse laws in Northern Ireland are undermining women’s human rights, but the UK Government is refusing to act even though the Stormont government is not currently sitting, writes Christine Jardine.

The UK Supreme Court and the United Nations have both warned that domestic abuse laws in Northern Ireland are undermining women’s human rights, but the UK Government is refusing to act even though the Stormont government is not currently sitting, writes Christine Jardine.

Abuse comes dressed up in a variety of disguises.

In some forms, it can appear warm and loving, even perhaps vulnerable, to the casual observer. But all are nasty, evil and damaging to those on the receiving end.

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At its worst, abuse can undermine the human rights of the people – usually, but not exclusively, women – who are subjected to it.

One of the worst forms of domestic violence is sexual.

Here in the UK we tend to think that we are alert to the dangers.

As a society we believe that we abhor, and fight at every opportunity, to expose and excise abuse, of every variation.

But just recently we were given a stark rebuke. Two in fact.

Both the UK Supreme Court and the United Nations warned that the current domestic abuse laws in Northern Ireland are undermining the human rights of its women. That women in this part of our country do not have the benefit of the same rights and protection of the law as the rest of us.

If that was not bad enough, if any of us, or our daughters, should move to that other part of the UK we would lose the rights we were born with. You maybe wonder how, or even doubt, this is possible. But it is.

The UK Supreme Court concluded that Northern Ireland’s abortion law is incompatible with human rights.

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Nicola Sturgeon urged to back efforts to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland

The United Nations stated that the UK is violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

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To be clear, this is not an argument about the rights and wrongs of abortion, but of human rights. It is about whether people in every part of the UK enjoy the same basic rights.

Before Parliament at the moment is an opportunity to address that inequality. But so far it remains untaken.

And more often than not the excuse given is one that I find particularly hard to swallow: devolution.

In each of the debates that I have been part of on this issue, the fact of the legislative existence of Stormont has been used as an excuse.

The argument regularly made – and one I would normally agree with – is that devolved areas should not be interfered with.

In this case, however, I am often left incredulous by those who say that while they recognise the situation is unacceptable and the law is in need of reform we shouldn’t interfere, even though Northern Ireland does not, at the moment have a working devolved legislature.

That offends my sense of justice.

When they have been asked, the majority of people in Northern Ireland have agreed that Westminster should step in.

Surely the people of Northern Ireland have a right to expect the same human rights as their fellow citizens in every other part of the UK?

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I would expect no less for any of us in Scotland, although I am sure that we would never need that redress and certainly in this area the law in Scotland is already enacted.

To be clear this is not, for me, simply about this Domestic Abuse Bill.

Yes, Northern Ireland has the most restrictive abortion law in Europe with a near blanket ban, even for cases where there is a medical reason. And that is certainly central to the argument.

This week Belfast high Court began hearing the case of a woman, Sarah Ewart, who was denied an abortion even though she was told her unborn baby had a fatal condition. She was forced to borrow money to make the journey to the UK for an abortion.

Since 1980, more than 170,000 women and girls have travelled to another country for an abortion. In 2017, 1,000 made that traumatic journey.

Sarah Ewart has the support of Northern Ireland’s human rights commission and of MPs like myself who last year voted to force Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley to explain how officials can continue to enforce the ban.

However, in Parliament, this has become about which should be more important: a constitutional argument or the human rights of the population.

For me the people, not the constitution or national identity, should come first.

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Devolution, as I argued in the Commons, means that areas of legislation are delegated, or transferred to another authority.

It should not mean that the UK Government abrogates all responsibility for the welfare of UK citizens or that it should not step up to resolve an injustice that is being done to some or any of our people, when there is no other body to fight their corner.

And neither should those of us in areas with devolved authorities use it as a defence against helping others. Indeed, not only has the UN argued that is the case, two-thirds of adults in Northern Ireland have agreed that, without their own devolved government, Westminster should act to change the law.

In parliament this week I felt for Conservative minister Victoria Atkins MP, a barrister in her former career, who had to make the Government’s argument that women in Northern Ireland could not have the protection of the Domestic Abuse Bill currently going through parliament because it is a devolved area.

Ms Atkins obviously feels as passionately as any of us that domestic abuse must be tackled but could not accept the case that it should be extended to Northern Ireland in the absence of a working executive there. There is currently a private members’ bill going through parliament, which I have backed, aimed at tackling the same issue.

And there have been several recent attempts to change the law over what should and, in a better world, would be the private healthcare concern of the individual women concerned.

For the moment at least, it seems that those who fail to overcome the roadblocks to re-establishing devolution in Northern Ireland also fail to protect the rights of its women.

Surely it’s time the rest of us took responsibility.