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Travers: abortion law is made in Belfast; English cities decide little

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The government’s response to the implications for Northern Ireland of the result of Ireland’s referendum on abortion was to defend the principle that any decision on the future of abortion law in the North should be made by the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont rather than by the UK Parliament at Westminster.

The first minister, Arlene Foster, also asserted that the issue was a matter for the assembly.

Because power-sharing at Stormont has broken down, Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for almost 18 months. Thus, UK MPs have an opportunity to impose change if the speaker of the Commons is willing to allow a vote on the subject. The fact the government relies on the DUP to support it in Parliament adds another level of complexity to the issue.

The DUP has made the union with Great Britain a key element in the Brexit negotiations, which takes us to a position where the DUP is asserting its right to be different from the rest of the country (and not only on this issue) while also an inviolable part of the UK. Devolution, as reinforced by the Good Friday Agreement, makes such contortions possible. Northern Ireland, like Scotland and Wales, is part of the UK yet can pass legislation that differs markedly from the rest of the country.

Northern Ireland has a population of 1.8 million, slightly larger than Kent or Essex, but significantly smaller than Greater Manchester’s. Northern Ireland’s gross value added is £38bn, the same as Kent or Essex’s, but well below Greater Manchester’s £62bn. London’s economy is over 10 times the scale of Northern Ireland’s and crucial to the Exchequer.

None of this is to diminish Northern Ireland, whose success is important to the whole of the UK and in many different ways. Rather, it is to point to the massive differential between the devolved power in the hands of Belfast politicians as compared to those in the city regions of Sheffield, Leeds, London, Manchester, Birmingham or the counties of England. If life-and-death matters can be decided in Northern Ireland, why not the more mundane issues of transport and health in the sub-national areas of England?

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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