Jacob Rees-Mogg: Easing NI abortion law would "damage the Union"

Jacob Rees-Mogg has claimed any attempt by the UK Government to relax strict laws against abortion in Northern Ireland would damage the Union.

Downing Street has refused to intervene in the debate over abortion rights in Northern Ireland despite growing pressure on Theresa May to step in following a referendum in the Republic.

Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti made a personal appeal to the Prime Minister, saying Northern Irish laws banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest were a “feminist test”.

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But a spokesman for the Prime Minister insisted that “the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to their own process… run by locally elected politicians”.

Devolved government in Belfast collapsed over a year ago, with little sign of a deal between the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, that could restore the power-sharing assembly at Stormont.

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The government depends on the DUP’s 10 MPs to maintain a majority in the House of Commons.

Mrs May’s spokesman told journalists: “The prime minister said on Sunday that the Irish referendum was an impressive show of democracy, which delivered a clear result, and she congratulated the Irish people on the decision.

“But it’s important to recognise that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to their own process, which is run by locally elected politicians.

“Our focus is restoring a democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland so that locally accountable politicians can make decisions on behalf of the public they represent.”

Mr Rees-Mogg, a devout Roman Catholic who has previously said he is against abortion, called on the Prime Minister to resist pressure from campaigners over the situation in Northern Ireland.

He said he was “saddened” by the referendum result in Ireland and insisted it should be a matter for Northern Irish politicians to decide whether to relax the current restrictions.

“This issue is really one of devolution,” he said. “I think once you start picking and choosing on the devolution settlement, you might find that you do great damage to the Union,” he warned.

“What if this was Scotland? What would be the result in Scotland if English MPs decided that they would overturn some policy of the SNP? I think it’s quite a dangerous approach to take in terms of our constitutional settlement.”

Baroness Chakrabarti said Mrs May, who once took part in a campaign for equal rights wearing a ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt, had to defend the rights of all women, “not just women we meet at parties”.

“I think that Theresa May, really as a self-identifying feminist, needs to say ‘Yes, I unveil statues of suffragists in Parliament Square, but the test of my feminism will be whether I guarantee fundamental human rights for women’,” Ms Chakrabarti said.