The UK Government is right to intervene to ensure the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill has said.
The Sinn Fein deputy First Minister’s comments came ahead of an anticipated announcement from Secretary of State Brandon Lewis this week on the ongoing stand-off over the rollout of services in the region.
Earlier, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned Mr Lewis against stepping in on a devolved issue, claiming it could damage the credibility of powersharing.
Abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution in the region had collapsed.
However, while individual health trusts are currently offering services on an ad hoc basis, the Department of Health has yet to centrally commission the services due to an ongoing impasse within the Executive.
The limitations on service provision saw many women continuing to travel to England to access abortions during the pandemic.
Ulster Unionist 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 a proposal to secure Executive approval, or even get on the agenda for a ministerial discussion, the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, must both agree to it.
The anti-abortion DUP has to date blocked consideration of the commissioning issue at the Executive.
In March, the Government intervened to hand Mr Lewis new powers to direct the region’s Department of Health to commission the services.
The Northern Ireland Secretary has not acted on those powers since that move but he is expected to outline his future intentions on the matter before Parliament goes into summer recess at the end of this week.
Ms O’Neill said the Government should intervene to ensure services were provided.
“Women here, in this part of Ireland, have been failed for far too long,” she said.
“It is very disappointing that the Health Minister hasn’t taken forward the appropriate legislation to make sure there are services provided.
“Women have been failed throughout this pandemic in such a catastrophic way, denied access to modern healthcare, so I think in the absence of the Health Minister and the Health Department bringing forward the proper provision of services, then it is right the Westminster situation comes forward, they have already legislated for it, that they now direct that the service is put in place.”
However, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey said the Executive, and not the Government, should be taking decisions on what is a devolved issue.
He indicated his support for an Executive sub-committee to examine the issues around commissioning of services.
“I think that the Secretary of State in those circumstances should enable or allow the Executive to get on with the work that it has been elected to do and to consider these most sensitive of issues,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“I just don’t think that it helps devolution and the credibility of our political institutions when the Westminster Government is constantly going over our heads and imposing things that are properly a matter for our local electoral representatives to take decisions on.”
The DUP leader said it is important for locally elected ministers to try to find consensus on the issue.
“The Executive is supposed to operate on a consensus basis and therefore, when it comes to even the most sensitive of issues, there’s a need to try and get consensus,” he said.
“It’s not right that some impose their views on others.”