From time to time, Parliament has to wrestle with Bills or motions which are a cocktail of competing constitutional principles, policy issues and matters of conscience. It can leave MPs in a difficult position trying to balance conflicts between different principles they might hold.
Last week was one of those occasions. A Bill was laid before Parliament to legislate to allow a simple extension of the constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland, to avoid the need for direct rule from Westminster for a little longer and to try to provide some additional space and time for delicate talks on re-establishing a power sharing executive. Two years ago there was a breakdown in relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein and the latter have so far refused to rejoin an executive meaning everything is suspended. No one wants a reversion back to the tension and violence that existed in Northern Ireland before so, difficult and frustrating though it is, it was right to give some more time to allow these delicate talks to continue.
When the government presented their simple Bill, they suddenly found that it was assailed with amendments from multiple directions by MPs pushing different agendas. Firstly, there were a group of MPs who wanted to hijack the Bill to insert new clauses that would try to frustrate Brexit and block the referendum result from three years ago. Secondly, there were others who put in amendments regarding abortion and also same sex marriage which would have driven a coach and horses through our constitutional settlement and imposed a Westminster view in Northern Ireland when these have always been free vote issues of consciousness for devolved assemblies in Scotland and Northern Ireland to decide.
I took the view that we should first and foremost uphold our constitutional settlement so opposed the attempts to impose a Westminster view on Northern Ireland. If we wanted to take the position that the lack of an executive in Northern Ireland meant important issues were not being addressed and this was intolerable, well then the correct course of action would be to be upfront about that, impose direct rule and then legislate for Northern Ireland on everything. However, this Bill was about doing the reverse. Bolting on all sorts of impositions on contentious issues that are a matter of conscience make the fragile talks more difficult than they already are.
I would not change the current settlement we have on same sex marriage in England and Wales but I was not willing to impose our view on Northern Ireland. On abortion, I think there are some changes that Northern Ireland could make but I would also support changes in England and Wales. I take the view that when it comes to an unwanted pregnancy, we ought to be requiring a decision to be made much earlier in a pregnancy and probably within twelve weeks. However, there are also tragic cases where a foetus is diagnosed with a rare condition meaning they would never survive but could suffer pain. It is an agonising decision for parents in such a situation and, in those sorts of cases, which are limited in number, I would always allow a termination at the current maximum of 24 weeks. Abortion is a very difficult ethical issue and I don’t agree with the way it is sometimes presented as a “women’s rights” issue. It is actually about balancing very difficult moral dilemmas.