The Northern Ireland Secretary has urged Stormont ministers to take action on rolling out abortions services in the region before he steps in to order it.
Brandon Lewis expressed hope progress could be made on the long-delayed central commissioning of services without him having to use new powers to direct the devolved administration to act on the issue.
Mr Lewis laid regulations at Westminster on Tuesday that would give him the ability to compel the region’s health department to commission the services.
He will assume the power when the regulations come into force on March 31.
Parliament will convene in the coming weeks to consider the regulations, with an expectation they will be approved and maintained.
In a written ministerial statement to MPs, Mr Lewis said he would continue to press the powersharing administration on the issue in the interim.
“While Parliament considers the regulations, we will continue to engage with the Minister of Health (Robin Swann) and the Executive to try and find a way forward over the coming weeks before any direction is given,” he said.
“We have used every opportunity and avenue to encourage progress and offer our support over the past year so we are disappointed that we have reached this impasse.
“We take this step now, to further demonstrate our commitment to ensuring women and girls can safely access abortion services in Northern Ireland.”
The Government’s intervention on delayed abortion services came ahead of a legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission over the ongoing failure to make terminations widely available in the region.
Abortion laws in the region were liberalised by MPs at Westminster in 2019 at a time when powersharing was collapsed.
New abortion regulations came into operation a year ago and, while individual health trusts are offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services on a region-wide basis.
The department said on Tuesday that 1,345 abortions had been carried out under the partial arrangements since the abortion regulations came into operation on March 31 2020.
However, in the absence of fully commissioned services being available, women from Northern Ireland are still travelling to England to access abortions.
Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann has maintained he cannot centrally commission services without the approval of the wider five-party coalition Executive, insisting it is his legal responsibility to refer controversial or significant decisions to the other ministers.
However, for such an issue to secure Executive approval, both of the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, must agree to it.
The anti-abortion DUP has to date blocked Mr Swann’s proposal.
The DUP has warned that an intervention by the Government would represent a breach of the devolution settlement for Northern Ireland and have “serious consequences” for the future operation of Stormont.
Mr Lewis said he wanted to find an agreed way forward with the Stormont Executive without having to use the powers to force the commissioning of services.
“I have taken forward these regulations today because women and girls in Northern Ireland are still being the denied the right to access high-quality abortion and post-abortion care locally,” he said.
“We do not take this step lightly. However, the devolution settlement does not absolve us of our responsibility to uphold the rights of women and girls. Our strong preference remains for the Northern Ireland Executive to take responsibility itself for upholding these rights.”
DUP leader and Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster has criticised the Government’s intervention.
“The action that’s been taken today by the Secretary of State is, from our perspective, very much overreach into a devolved space,” she told reporters at Stormont.
“It is up to the devolved administration how they deal with these issues and therefore he is acting beyond what he should be doing. He will, of course, say that he’s acting under Westminster legislation, that’s why he’s taking the action that he is.
“The action that he takes today, by way of written ministerial statement and the laying of regulations, does not change what happens in Northern Ireland overnight.
“There is now a period of time where those regulations sit and it’s not until they’re affirmed by Parliament that he is given the power to direct the Health Minister here in Northern Ireland.
“So nothing changes overnight but our view is very clearly that the Secretary of State should not be overreaching into the devolved space.”
Northern Ireland’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill predicted the abortion issue will “come to a head” at Thursday’s meeting of the Stormont Executive.
“I think that one year after the legislation has been passed, I think it’s so unfair that women have been denied access to modern and compassionate healthcare services,” said the Sinn Fein vice president.
“The Department of Health have still not commissioned the services that women are entitled to.
“It should be this Executive that decides and makes sure that we deliver these services.
“So I very much urge the Health Minister to commission the services. I hope this matter will come to a head in the Executive on Thursday, I think that’s where we should be making the decisions around what is modern and compassionate healthcare for all women who are entitled to have that service whenever they find themselves in the most challenging of circumstances.”