What's in a date?


October 18 has been in our news diaries for some time, not because it's the birthday of tennis player Martina Navratilova or footballer Robbie Savage.

Nor that it's the anniversary of the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the purchase of Alaska by the United States.

Instead we had earmarked the day as probably the last, most crucial gathering of the Stormont-Treasury joint ministerial working group on the devolution of Corporation Tax.

That was until last week, when Marie Stopes revealed it had picked the same date to open the first clinic offering sexual health services including medical abortion on the island of Ireland.

Protests outside the clinic became inevitable.

But I still wouldn't have been able to predict quite how the 18th would witness a series of developments bringing questions of morality, politics and the law into sharp relief.

Whilst the pro-life protestors gathered in Great Victoria Street, members of the Assembly Justice Committee prepared for a meeting at Stormont.

Tight confines

In their hands they clutched a letter from Northern Ireland's most senior law officer, Attorney General John Larkin, suggesting the committee should launch an investigation into the intentions of the Marie Stopes organisation.

Would its clinical activities remain within the extremely tight confines of the law in Northern Ireland?

In a remarkable piece of correspondence, Mr Larkin offered his services to the Justice Committee as a Senior Counsel prepared to question witnesses.

Stormont has witnessed some robust sessions before; one thinks of members of the Public Accounts Committee cross-questioning public servants.

However, the Attorney General's idea seemed to mark a new stage in the evolution of Stormont committees, appearing to invite the Justice Committee to take on an evidence-gathering inquisitorial role.

If so, questions would no doubt be asked about the traditional separation of functions between the legislature and the judiciary.

When the committee discussed the matter, all parties were supportive of inviting Marie Stopes representatives to provide evidence on how their clinic will comply with Northern Ireland's criminal law.

But Sinn Fein's Raymond McCartney expressed concern that the matter should be investigated by the "appropriate authorities" rather than by the committee taking on powers it did not desire.

Current ban

If the abortion question didn't provide enough food for thought, then the High Court added to the legal headaches now afflicting the Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots.

Mr Justice Treacy ruled in favour of the Human Rights Commission in a judicial review overturning the current ban on unmarried and gay couples adopting children.

The judge found that the ban was not in the best interests of the child as it decreased the pool of potential adoptive parents.

He also found that it discriminated against unmarried or gay couples by infringing their European Convention rights to a private family life.

The health minister begged to differ with the judge.

Edwin Poots said he would be urgently appealing against the ruling and blamed the long-running judicial review for delaying the reform of Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

Even if the Justice Committee does not take the Attorney General up on his suggestion that he could be chief questioner of Marie Stopes over abortion, it looks like John Larkin will still be busy.

He has acted previously for the Health Department in their defence of the current adoption regime.

At the time of writing we don't have any dates in the diary for either the adoption appeal or the abortion committee.

However, my colleague Jim Fitzpatrick is predicting that 5 December may be significant in the long-running saga of Corporation Tax, as the Chancellor George Osborne may use his autumn statement to deliver the UK government's final decision.

Let's wait and see if 5 December turns out to be just as action-packed as 18 October.

Mark Devenport Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The strange thing is that you wouldn't have covered the last meeting or the potential impact the tax debacle could have on us. However when there appears to be a chance to drive a wedge in between the differences of the various religious factions / groups and communities then there you are, filling your boots.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Once again a handful of religious extremists dictate terms to the entire population of Northern Ireland.

    I am ashamed that not a single politician has the ability to stand up for progress. Do any of them know that a world exists outside of insular, parochial Ulster?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    At least the Minister can be relied upon to make a decision when it comes to enforcing his personal views on everybody - he has yet to take a decision about the Health and Social Care Services of any meaning in spite of the promised tough decision making talk on his appointment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Also, the continued attempts to give a massive cash handout to the wealthiest corporations beggars belief. This economic supplication before fickle international capital is embarrassing.
    I guess what we are going to share in the future is a chance to live in the past.
    As a citizen of NI I am appalled at the poverty of ideas, lack of basic human empathy and the myopia of our representatives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I think your headlining of the date is significant when so many of todays events are essentially backwards steps against the tide of history.
    Whilst other nations (Uruguay-Abortion, Brazil-Adoption, Sweden- Renewables) progress we are determined to remove choice from women, deny equality to same sex couples and massively invest in a fossil fuel future.


Comments 5 of 6



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