Former prime minister Tony Blair put “on ice” Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam’s plan to review abortion laws, warning it would cause further division, newly released documents reveal.
According to the previously confidential state papers there had been discussion within government around a review of abortion law in the region from February 1998.
The 1967 Abortion Act did not then apply to Northern Ireland, where the law on abortion was instead governed by a combination of statute and case law.
In a letter to DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson in June 1998, Ms Mowlam said the government had been pressed by a “range of interests”, including the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, High Court judges, gynaecologists and women’s organisations, to clarify the current position.
“This is not a position with which we as a responsible government can be comfortable, and I can confirm one option under consideration is the establishment of an expert committee to inquire into the legal, medical and social issues raised by the current law and practice, and to make recommendations,” she wrote.
“However, our predecessors have consistently taken the view that, if there is to be any change in the law, the preferable way for it to happen would be through Northern Ireland elected representatives. Accordingly, I envisage that any expert review would report in the first instance to the Northern Ireland Assembly and its ministers.”
According to the file, Ms Mowlam proposed in 1999 that an independent review of legal and medical issues raised by the current abortion laws in Northern Ireland should take place.
But she was told by Mr Blair that he was “not convinced that a review should be undertaken now” because he saw “little scope for bi-communal support”.
He told her it should be “put on ice for now”.
Ms Mowlam was recorded as having accepted the prime minister’s view, but maintained she would “like to return to the issue when the political process permitted”, noting that the Labour Party had made a pre-election commitment to review the abortion law.
She is recorded as having said she felt the approach she had suggested was “a minimalist one”.
The file also notes plans for a ship with a fully equipped operating theatre to carry out abortions to visit Dublin in 2001.
It records that the ship, financed by the Dutch Women’s organisation Women on Waves, planned to “launch its worldwide activities in Ireland because it has one of the most restrictive abortion policies in Europe”.
However it also notes that the ship is not expected to come to Northern Ireland, and suggested that, if asked about it, the “line to take” was that it was “a matter for the authorities there (Dublin)”.