Members of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have voted in support of ‘Safe Access Zone’ provision for abortion services; however, there was clear division in the Chamber and in some party lines.

In December, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that legislation passed by the Assembly is compatible with human rights legislation, becoming an Act of law in February, 2023.

The Act protects the right for persons to access abortion and associated sexual and reproductive health services, as well as the people who work in them, by providing the basis through protected premises with a Safe Access Zone applied.

This prohibits anti-abortion protests and other specified behaviour within that protected area. It is envisaged that all Health and Social Care Trusts will have such a zone in place at the relevant premises in the near future.

This will reach to within 100m from each entrance or exit, and there is provision to extend by up to 150m, if required, to afford safe access to protected persons.

Criminal offences and enforcement come into effect this coming May, 2023, and engagement with the PSNI and Department of Justice is ongoing.

However, Democratic Unionist Councillor Mark Buchanan expressed disappointment at the move as: “We felt there was sufficient provision within the current legislation to deal with protests.

“This removes the right of peaceful protest and there is a strong pro-life movement across our land.

“Much disappointment has been made to me personally over this legislation, which will see criminal offences and enforcement come into effect.”

He conceded abortion is an issue “which we have different views on, but we know the Secretary of State commissioned the service in Northern Ireland without the support of the people”.

He continued: “It was a shameful decision. Just a short time ago, a woman was arrested for silently praying outside a clinic in Birmingham.

“This is what is included in this legislation for Northern Ireland,” claimed Councillor Buchanan.

Councillor Stephen Donnelly, Alliance disagreed, telling members: “Access to health care is a right and it’s appropriate there’s legislation to ensure that.”

He proposed asking the Western Health and Social Care Trust to provide an update on the implementation of their Early Medical Abortion Service.

Seconding, Sinn Fein’s Councillor Debbie Coyle also welcomed the letter, stating: “This has been a long time coming.

“It’s very, very rare a person would be found praying silently.

“Nobody knows why a woman choses to terminate a pregnancy, and it’s her right to do so.”

Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh, CCLA said: “People have a right to protect but equally people can access healthcare without being intimidated.

“Whatever the perspective, fundamentally there is an access right.”

Noting a level of dissent on Councillor Donnelly’s proposal, the Chair, Councillor Barry McElduff, decided to go to a vote, which showed a clear split in the Chamber and in some party lines.

The proposal passed 18 to 11, with 11 abstentions.


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