The SDLP has rejected claims that it left abortion out of its manifesto because party members are sharply split on the controversial issue.
The SDLP manifesto bemoans the “political vacuum” in Northern Ireland, adding that the absence of power-sharing has seen increasing numbers of decisions “out sourced” to MPs in Westminster.
The manifesto lists decisions take on welfare, same sex marriage, climate change, Historical Institutional Abuse compensation, victims pensions, and NHS privatisation as examples.
However the party has faced stiff questioning as to why abortion - recently decriminalised in NI by MPs - was not mentioned in the list.
Pro-life SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly responded that the party allows its MLAs “a conscience vote” on the issue.
“Some party members are very clear in their support for some of the proposals in relation to that which was recently passed in the south of Ireland, allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest and up until 12 weeks of gestation. That is not party policy, that is what some MLAs will support.
“The party policy is that we are coming from a pro-life position and many members of the SDLP will have great difficulties in supporting such a proposal. If devolution is put back in place in time to have an influence on the outcome of abortion [legislation].”
But she denied the manifesto “dodged it completely” because the party was split. “I don’t think it is dodged,” she told the Nolan Show. “It has had considerable debate and discussion in the public arena.”
Peadar Tóibín, leader of pro-life Aontu party – which is contesting seven NI seats – claimed there is “deep frustration” among SDLP supporters and members at the omission.
“The SDLP has ceased completely to stand up for the human right to life of the most vulnerable in society,” he told the News Letter.
“Colum Eastwood campaigned and lobbied for Westminster to introduce the most extreme abortion law into the north of Ireland.
“Other SDLP leaders such as Claire Hanna have done the same. Now we see all traces of the previous pro-life policy airbrushed from their manifesto. Its important for voters to know that a vote for either the SDLP or Sinn Fein is a vote for the extreme abortion regime they have introduced.”
But Mrs Kelly hit back that her party’s position on abortion is “well known and supports the right to life”.
Acknowledging the “extremely sensitive” nature of the issue and the lived experience of many members, the SDLP offers MLAs a conscience vote, which is exactly what Mr Tóibín argued for when in Sinn Fein, she added.