As the struggle for access to abortion continues, Eamonn McCann details the interventions of Attorney General John Larkin into the rights of women in the north of Ireland.
In 2010, Stormont’s First and Deputy First ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, appointed John Larkin QC as Attorney General.
Larkin had hitherto been best-known for a Radio Ulster interview in May 2008 in which he had likened abortion on ground of foetal abnormality to “putting a bullet in the back of the head of the child two days after it is born”.
The lads knew the cut of the man they’d chosen as their chief law officer at a time when women’s rights were inching towards the top of the agenda.
In January 2012, evangelical MLA Jim Wells assured Stormont’s all-party “pro-life” group that, “Mr Larkin had taken control and his views on abortion were sound”.
In October 2012, the Assembly’s justice committee was set to discuss the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast which would have provided a very limited abortion service. Larkin wrote to the committee saying he’d be willing personally to take the role of calling and questioning witnesses, and, if appropriate, summoning the police to deal with any potentially criminal matters that might arise.
Even strongly “pro-life” MLAs bristled at his presumption. Ulster Unionist justice spokesman Tom Elliott said that his party “would certainly be opposed to any attempt by the Attorney General to take control of a Committee Inquiry.”
A Guardian editorial told Larkin to “stop stirring the Marie Stopes pot…If he intervenes again on the matter his position as chief legal adviser is surely untenable.”
Larkin’s offer to the committee came to nothing.
Nothing daunted, however, and in June 2012 Larkin wrote to the European Court of Human Rights offering to assist in a case in which an Austrian lesbian was seeking the right to adopt the natural child of her partner of 17 years. Larkin argued that, “as the guardian of the rule of law in Northern Ireland,” he had a right to be heard because any ruling might have implications for future cases in the North.
No law officer of any other parliament, committee or assembly tried to elbow their way into the proceedings.
The judges, of course, found for the woman.
Larkin next weighed in against Sarah Ewart. She had had to go to England for an abortion in 2013 in a case of fatal foetal abnormality after being refused the procedure in the North. The NI Human Rights Commission took up the case. The Supreme Court in London eventually ruled that the law underpinning the denial of abortion in the North was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
But, the court continued, the Commission wasn’t the injured party and didn’t have standing to press the case. Ms. Ewart brought new proceedings herself. The case returned to court in January 2019. Larkin now argued that Ms. Ewart wasn’t an injured party either since she was no longer carrying the pregnancy which had been the subject of the original complaint.
It may be appropriate to take a moment to ponder the mind-set behind that argument – that a woman forced to travel for an abortion, or to carry to term, or risk the law by inducing a miscarriage, is not an ‘injured party’ once the pregnancy is gone.
In the end, Ms. Ewart won her case.
Larkin has more recently involved himself in framing new abortion guidelines, insisting he could include extension of a right to conscientious objection to abortion to anyone “who undertake(s) ancillary administrative and managerial tasks.” Signposting to abortion services could be opted out of on the basis of conscience, or booking appointments, if this proceeded.
The Supreme Court in London had previously ruled, in a case involving two Glasgow midwives, that in promulgating the guidelines, “Parliament will not have had in mind the hospital managers who decide to offer an abortion service, the administrators who decide how best that service can be organised within the hospital, the caterers who provide the patients with food and the cleaners who provide them with a safe and hygienic environment.”
But none of this – and there’s more – has deflected Larkin from his crusade against a woman’s right to choose.
In January this year, Larkin was appointed a temporary, part-time judge. Making the announcement, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, pledged, strangely, “to manage any potential conflict of interests.”
One interpretation of this would be that Sir Declan will see to it that Larkin recuses himself from any cases which come his way involving gay or women’s rights.