The UK government is making a highly unusual intervention after Northern Ireland’s devolved government failed to establish abortion services.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis is expected to table regulations in parliament on Tuesday granting him power to direct Stormont’s Department of Health on this issue.
It places the secretary of state on a collision course with the Democratic Unionists, who have described the move as an “over-reach” of his office.
Westminster legislated for abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019, just months before the power-sharing government was restored after a three-year stalemate.
Since then, individual health trusts have offered abortion services on an ad hoc basis but a lack of agreement at Stormont means the Department of Health has yet to commission them centrally.
The intervention follows landmark legal action against the UK government and the Northern Ireland Executive for failing to commission safe and accessible abortion services one year after they became legal.
Stormont health minister Robin Swann says he cannot act alone because the issue is controversial and requires agreement among ministers in the devolved government.
Under the change imposed by Westminster last year, abortion is legal in all circumstances during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and there is no term limit in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
The Northern Ireland Assembly recently passed a DUP bill aimed at preventing abortion in cases of non-fatal disability, including Down’s Syndrome.
The DUP has vowed to “vigorously oppose” the UK government’s intervention in what it regards as a devolved matter.
Northern Ireland’s four main churches – Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist – have also expressed their objection to the move.
But pro-choice groups say the devolved government has had ample time to commission services and the UK government has a legal obligation to ensure regulations are applied.
With some Unionists already urging the DUP to collapse power-sharing over the Northern Ireland Brexit Protocol, a row over abortion will put further pressure on devolution.