Bungling Secretary of State should have known Bill would be hijacked, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published: 15 July 2019

Karen Bradley has united the parties here — in disdain for the job she is doing

Karen Bradley has united the parties here — in disdain for the job she is doing

The only thing you can say for Karen Bradley as Secretary of State is that she’s managed to unite Northern Ireland’s political parties. They all agree she’s been hopeless.

In fairness, the fault lies with Theresa May for appointing to the job someone completely unqualified through a combination of ignorance, lack of curiosity and timidity.

But what Mrs Bradley does have is blind loyalty to a floundering and ultra-cautious Prime Minister whose instructions appear to have been: “Whatever you do, do nothing.”

Which is why, from time to time, when she absolutely has to legislate — as for instance with the botched legislation on RHI — Mrs Bradley avoids any kind of scrutiny by railroading it through Westminster under emergency powers.

Considering that a June report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recommended she stop doing this, you’d think she’d mend her ways. But no.

Off she went again last week, rushing through the Commons a Bill to kick the electoral can down the road as fast as possible.

It had apparently passed her by that some activist MPs might find this a glorious opportunity to hijack it to force same-sex marriage and abortion on Northern Ireland.

As a distressed friend emailed me yesterday. “I am angry beyond words that one of the most permissive abortion regimes in Europe was imposed on us last Tuesday by a fast-track procedure which ran a coach and four through devolution and which flies in the face of the last vote in NI Assembly.”

The province was being given “something even beyond the pathetic inadequacy of the 1967 Act” amid rejoicing “that we were finally brought out of the Dark Ages. Colonialism par excellence”.

I’m quite happy with single-sex marriage, though I understand why people worry that it could have the unintended consequence of undermining the family.

On abortion, I’m the same ditherer I’ve been my whole adult life.

I hate it, but I’m not absolutist about it.

I was worried in 1967 that the safeguards would be ignored, as indeed they have been.

Great Britain has had more than nine million abortions and even Lord Steel, the architect of that Abortion Act, believes there are too many and that it is wrong to use abortion as a form of contraception.

But on both these issues, what I’m absolutely certain of is that there’s no excuse for legislating without serious debate among the representatives of those who will be affected.

It was utterly shocking that the two relevant amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill were passed after a four-hour debate in an almost empty House.

What’s more, according to the Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin, it compels the Government to implement the recommendations of a report that is “not drafted clearly or even consistently with important human rights texts”.

Lord Duncan, the NIO Minister, believes both amendments have “technical deficiencies”.

And on top of all that, the Act sets October as the deadline for devolution before imposing abortion and same-sex marriage.

Since both Sinn Fein and the DUP would prefer to avoid embarrassment by having the legislation passed at Westminster rather than Stormont — thus enabling them to say “nothing to do with us, guv” on the doorsteps of unhappy supporters — this will be a major hindrance to agreement to restore Stormont speedily.

In other words, it’s an omnishambles.

But there may yet be some good extracted from the mess.

Today members of the House of Lords will be debating and voting on a series of amendments to the Bill.

Among them are four that could help correct some serious injustices.

Three are victim-related, requiring the Secretary of State to regulate for pensions for innocent victims of the Troubles, to change the definition of “victim” to apply “only to a person who is injured or affected wholly by the actions of another person”, and to provide a publicly-funded compensation scheme for those who suffered historical institutional abuse.

The fourth requires her to have the Defamation Act 2013 extended to Northern Ireland — in other words, to reform the repressively stringent libel laws that inhibit free speech.

Now, what reasonable person could object to any of those?

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