This statement is issued in accordance with section 4 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 (‘the Act’). Section 4 of the Act requires that I, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, report on a quarterly basis on guidance issued under that section of the Act, and report on how I plan to address the impact of the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers on human rights obligations within three months of the day the Act was passed.
The Act received Royal Assent on 1 November 2018. Following careful consideration of the sensitive issues section 4 deals with, and in consultation with the Northern Ireland Civil Service, guidance under section 4 was published on 17 December 2018.
The guidance notes that it does not, and cannot be used to, change the current law on abortion or same sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Both issues remain devolved matters in Northern Ireland. The guidance provides that all relevant Northern Ireland departments should continue to have regard to all of their legal obligations, including the Human Rights Act 1998 and sections 24 and 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, in exercising any relevant functions in relation to abortion and same sex marriage.
Two reports required under section 4 have been published as Written Ministerial Statements on 30 January 2019 and 1 May 2019.
I have consulted the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service in the preparation of this report. He has reaffirmed the continuing commitment of the NICS to have regard to their legal obligations when exercising any relevant functions in relation to abortion and same sex marriage.
The Government’s preference remains that any change to law on either of these sensitive devolved issues is taken forward by a restored Executive and functioning Assembly. It remains the hope that devolved government can be restored at the earliest opportunity through the current talks process.
However, we recognise the strength of feeling on same-sex marriage and abortion law reform demonstrated by a majority of MPs supporting the addition of sections 8 and 9 to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. These sections require the Government to regulate in order to provide access to abortion services and same-sex marriage (and opposite-sex civil partnerships) in Northern Ireland, if there is no restored Executive by 21 October 2019.
There are a range of sensitive policy issues that need to be carefully addressed on both issues. We will work with relevant Whitehall departments and the Northern Ireland Civil Service to take all necessary steps between now and 21 October 2019 to ensure that, if the Executive has not been restored by that date, relevant regulations can come into force in accordance with the timescales specified in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.