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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018: Section 4 Report

Volume 653: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2019

This statement is issued in accordance with section 4 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 (“the Act”). Section 4 of the Act requires that I, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, report on a quarterly basis on guidance issued under that section of the Act, and report on how I plan to address the impact of the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers on human rights obligations within three months of the day the Act was passed.

The Act received Royal Assent on 1 November 2018. Following careful consideration of the sensitive issues section 4 deals with, and in consultation with the Northern Ireland civil service, guidance under section 4 was published on 17 December 2018.

The guidance notes that it does not, and cannot be used to, change the current law on abortion or same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Both issues remain devolved matters in Northern Ireland. The guidance provides that all relevant Northern Ireland departments should continue to have regard to all of their legal obligations, including the Human Rights Act 1998 and sections 24 and 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, in exercising any relevant functions in relation to abortion and same-sex marriage.

I have consulted the head of the Northern Ireland civil service in the preparation of this report. He has reaffirmed the continuing commitment of the NICS to have regard to their legal obligations when exercising any relevant functions in relation to abortion and same-sex marriage.

I will keep the Government’s position on these sensitive devolved issues under review in light of the UK Government’s legal obligations, and in light of any relevant emerging legal judgments, as appropriate.

I believe, however, that the current absence of devolved Government in Northern Ireland should not dislodge the principle that it is for the devolved Administration to both legislate on, and ensure compliance with, human rights obligations in relation to such devolved matters.

Restoring the Executive remains my top priority and I am continuing to encourage the parties to come together to work towards restoring devolved Government. I am firmly of the view that the people of Northern Ireland need their elected representatives back in Government to take important decisions on the issues that matter most to them.