NC7 was an amendment to increase accountability of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and senior officers of Northern Ireland departments, for their role in ensuring human rights compliance in Northern Ireland, in the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers.
This amendment was designed, not to change the law, but to address incompatibilities between legislation applied in Northern Ireland and human rights obligations, by requiring the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to issue guidance to senior officials in Northern Ireland on the issues of abortion and equal marriage.
In Northern Ireland, abortion is currently illegal, other than in cases where the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life or if there is a permanent or serious risk to the mother’s physical or mental health. It is also the case that there is no legislation to allow the marriage of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland.
While these are devolved matters, we have not had an Executive in Northern Ireland since January 2017 and so NC7 was about guidance and accountability on human rights, in the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland. In any case, the UK Government is responsible for ensuring compliance with human rights obligations.
I am pleased that NC7 was passed following a free vote of the House of Commons on 24 October 2018 and was added to the Bill. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act received Royal Assent on 1 November and is now law.
Beyond the scope of this legislation, I believe it is wrong that issues of human rights and social justice that are enjoyed naturally in other parts of the UK are being denied to citizens in Northern Ireland.
Of course, I would like devolved government to be re-established as soon as possible. However, in its absence, I believe the UK Government must uphold international human rights and take steps to extend a woman’s right to choose, and the right to equal marriage, to Northern Ireland.