Blair told Mowlam to put abortion law reform ‘on ice’ 20 years before it was legalised in North

Prime minister’s private secretary wrote that Blair ‘sees little scope for bi-communal support for a change to the law’

Twenty years before abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland, British prime minister Tony Blair ordered Northern secretary Mo Mowlam to put her planned review of the restrictive law on terminations “on ice”.

The Downing Street correspondence is contained in previously confidential files released this week in which Blair’s private secretary wrote that the “Prime Minister… sees little scope for bi-communal support for a change to the law and sees little advantage in embarking on a review.”

In the year the note was sent, an estimated 1,500 women from the North travelled to England for abortions.

“The Prime Minister is not convinced that we should embark on a review of the abortion law in Northern Ireland… I think he would rather the proposal be put on ice for now,” John Sawyer wrote on February 17th 1999, in response to Mowlam’s private secretary, Nick Parry, following her letter the previous week on the urgent need for the law to be scrutinised by an expert panel.

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It wasn’t until October 2019 that abortion was decriminalised in the North – and only during a period of Stormont collapse when the landmark legislative change was introduced through Westminster.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International published research on Northern Ireland’s fragmented services and concluded that abortion access was ‘a right but not a reality’

Despite the relaxation of the laws – abortion was previously only legal in exceptional circumstances with just eight terminations carried out across the North’s hospitals in 2018/19 – and high demand, services have still not been fully implemented in what has become a highly politicised issue, resulting in further interventions from London in recent years.

Earlier this month, Amnesty International published research on Northern Ireland’s fragmented services and concluded that abortion access was “a right but not a reality”.

State papers released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland show that Mowlam was lobbying for an unprecedented independent review of abortion law in the months leading up to the signing of the Belfast Agreement, in which she played an instrumental role.

The files give an insight into the heightened concerns of the North’s department of health – and even a US Republican congressman – into any overhaul of the existing legislation and where responsibility lay in implementing change, with one senior doctor at the department insisting it was a matter for the Northern Ireland Office.

A similar stand-off arose in 2020 when Stormont health minister Robin Swann failed to commission abortion services, arguing the “controversial” measure required sign-off by the powersharing Stormont executive, a move that could never happen due to the DUP’s fierce opposition to abortion.

The Northern Ireland state papers capture the panic among senior Stormont civil servants in 1998 as they prepared a “media handling strategy” to “fend off” the anticipated negative publicity from MPs and churches ahead of announcing Mowlam’s intention to establish an expert panel on abortion law reform.

Journalists were handpicked by the Department of Health for briefings to soften the messaging, with the main nationalist daily newspaper’s larger Catholic readership chosen over a unionist one. “It could be argued that Irish News readers will be prime audience for our message on this issue,” Information officer Jill Garrett wrote in a memo on February 20th, 1998.

“There is the probability that the general public might make the assumption from the announcement that the establishment of an Expert Group is merely a procedural step in liberalising abortion law in Northern Ireland. We should take every opportunity available in the hours shortly after the announcement to clarify the Government’s position and to set the goalposts.”

Contained in the files is a draft letter for Blair dated March 1998 – just a month before the historic peace deal was brokered on Good Friday – outlining the reasons Mowlam wanted to set up an panel which would be made up of a “majority of women”. By that point she had already secured a senior judge to chair it.

Mowlam noted that opinion polls had suggested a majority of both Catholics and Protestants favoured relaxing the law ‘in cases of rape or incest, or where a child would be born seriously handicapped’

The panel’s remit would be to probe the “legal, medical and social issues raised by current abortion law and practice in Northern Ireland and recommend changes”.

“It would look not only at the law but also at related issues including sex education, access to counselling and support services for pregnant women,” the draft letter stated.

Mowlam noted that opinion polls had suggested a majority of both Catholics and Protestants favoured relaxing the law “in cases of rape or incest, or where a child would be born seriously handicapped”.

But she acknowledged that action by the UK government to clarify or change abortion law was “likely to be controversial”.

Ten months later, a letter marked “confidential” that was sent to Northern Ireland minister of state Adam Ingram on January 6th, 1999, by Mowlam’s private secretary contains an underlined sentence highlighting her desire for movement on the issue: “The Secretary of State indicated that in her view the time is now right for an independent review of the abortion laws in Northern Ireland”.

A clearly disappointed Northern secretary responded within 24 hours to Blair’s instruction to delay the review.

“Dr Mowlam accepts the Prime Minister’s view that the proposal should be put on ice for now,” her private secretary wrote to his Downing Street opposite number on February 18th, 1999.

However, Mowlam reminded Blair of the Labour Party pledge to examine abortion law in Northern Ireland once it got into office and said she would like to return to the matter “when the political process is further down the road”.

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