Theresa May will not intervene to help lift Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion, Downing Street has said.
Pressureon the prime minister to act has grown in the wake of the Republic of Irelands referendum, which saw the country vote for reform of its abortion laws.
Senior Conservatives such as Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the Commons health committee, and Anne Milton, the education minister, have backed calls for a free vote in Parliament on lifting the Northern Irish ban, while cabinet ministers such as Penny Mordaunt are also said to be ready to push for change.
However, Ms Mays spokesperson said the government believed the issue was a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly,which has not sat since early last year after power-sharing collapsed.
The spokesperson said: This is a devolved matter.
“It is important to recognise that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to their own process which is run by 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.”
Calls for a change to thelaw pose a headache for Ms May because the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose votes she relies on in Parliament, are firmly anti-abortion and would be certain to oppose any push for reform.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has already warned the prime minister against intervening on the issue, saying: Fridays referendum has no impact upon the law in Northern Ireland, but we obviously take note of issues impacting upon our nearest neighbour.
A referendum was held in the Republic of Ireland because of the constitutional prohibition on abortion that existed there. No such constitutional bar exists in Northern Ireland.”
She added: The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter, and it is for the Northern Ireland assembly to debate and decide such issues.
Some of those who wish to circumvent the assemblys role may be doing so simply to avoid its decision.
Labour MP Stella Creasy has said she will table an amendment to the Domestic Violence Bill that wouldstandardise abortion law across the UK in effect making it legal in Northern Ireland. She claimed more than 150 parliamentarians have already expressed support for the change.
Asked whether Conservative MPs would be given a free vote on the amendment, the Downing Street spokesperson said: “Where Westminster has had votes in relation to this in the past there has been a free vote, but Im not going to comment on hypothetical amendments.
Labour said the issue was a test of Ms Mays feminist credentials.
Shami Chakrabarti, the shadow attorney general, toldBBC Radio 4: We are calling on Mrs May, a self-identifying feminist, to negotiate with the parties in Northern Ireland and then to legislate without further delay.
You cant have democracy without fundamental human rights, and the women of Northern Ireland have suffered for long enough. I think 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.