The National:

THE Scottish Government needs to “pull its finger out” and get buffer zones in place around abortion clinics urgently, the politician who got them implemented in Northern Ireland has said.

Clare Bailey faced a nerve-wracking battle to get her Abortion (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill approved by the Supreme Court last year after its approval by Stormont was challenged by the Northern Ireland attorney general Brenda King.  

The court eventually delivered a unanimous judgement to say the bill did not impact on the right to freedom of expression and the assembly had the power to implement it.

It was a seismic moment proving the legislation could withstand legal challenge and be implemented across the UK if other nations wished to grab hold of it.

Bailey – who was a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) before losing her seat in the 2022 election - has now insisted the Scottish Government should formally adopt Gillian Mackay’s private member’s bill in order to get buffer zone legislation in place in Scotland much quicker.

READ MORE: 'Evil and vindictive': MSP reveals abuse from anti-abortion activists

She said: “I know there’s people in Scotland frustrated about how long this is taking and they have a point because I think on the back of the Supreme Court judgement there’s nothing stopping anyone getting this through.

“We saw Westminster move fast, so in Scotland they need to get their finger out and I know Gillian [Mackay] is working really hard.

“But as a backbencher with a private member’s bill, she doesn’t have access to the resources [the Government do].

“So my message to the Scottish Government is, they’ve always said they support Gillian’s bill but they’re not giving it the resource to bring it forward or make it a faster process, so they can easily adopt the bill and bring it forward much quicker.

The National: Clare Bailey celebrates in Stormont as her bill passesClare Bailey celebrates in Stormont as her bill passes (Image: Clare Bailey)

“There is no more ifs and buts, it’s been done, they have the Supreme Court ruling. If the Government want to put their money where their mouth is, all they have to do is adopt that bill rather than leaving Gillian to take on voices saying this is too slow with the very limited resource she has.

“Words are one thing, action is another, and the more you wait, the more your women suffer.”

The Government has said it is supportive of Mackay’s Abortion Services Safe Access Zones Bill – which has not yet been formally laid in Parliament – but has so far not committed to legislating in the area.

It will get a chance to formally adopt the bill if it wishes to when Mackay presents a final proposal to Parliament but she has said she feels this is unlikely given ministers have already said they are committed to working with her to get the bill passed.

A six-year battle

Bailey – who was also a Green politician - was a backbencher herself and is no stranger to the frustrations you can face in trying to get heavy, criminal legislation over the line.

She started working on her bill back in 2016 when she was first elected, but faced a huge hurdle just a year later as the assembly collapsed and did not sit again for three years. Bailey was only able to return to working on it in 2020 and it then took another two years before it could become law.

She said the legislation will have to be carefully drawn up in Scotland but there is no reason for anyone in the chamber to be nervous about legal challenge.

Bailey said: “I’m not a big fan of legalisation, particularly criminal legislation, and I do think that if anyone is bringing in criminal law you do need to take your time but as I say this bill has been done, the Supreme Court have given their complete, unambivalent ruling. It can be just copy and pasted now, UK-wide and I don’t see why that can’t be done.

“All you have to do is refer back to the Supreme Court judgment and keep your bill in line with that. I mean you’ll have to tailor it to your circumstances but to me that’s the smaller thing. That can happen quite quickly.”

The final piece of the jigsaw

Buffer zones will now be in force in Northern Ireland from May 7. The five health trusts have formed a working group to suss out exactly how the zones will work, what needs to be done to make sure the public are aware of them and the police know what part they have to play.

The police will be responsible for patrolling the zones and will be able to issue sanctions that range from simply moving someone on to fining an offender up to £2000 if they refuse to comply.

Seeing the law come into force is the final piece of the jigsaw after a long and emotional journey for Bailey, who became passionate about keeping protesters away from abortion clinics when she was a client escort for women accessing services in the years before she became an MLA.

Despite protesters’ claims otherwise, she never saw demonstrations as anything other than deliberate harassment and she has urged campaigners in Scotland to stop at nothing until women are protected from them.

READ MORE: 'I've never seen anyone change their mind on abortion due to protesters'

Bailey added: “Every single memory of what I experienced kept me motivated.

“I have been abused, I’ve been spat on, I’ve been splashed with holy water, I had one young girl I was trying to escort away from these people who ran into oncoming traffic.

“When these women they claim to want to help are out of their sight and out of mind, these protesters turned around and laughed in our faces. They are just in it for themselves.

“To me it’s just a deliberate campaign of harassment and it’s been allowed to happen and it’s happening in Scotland as well. It has to stop, and anyone campaigning should never take their eye off the ball.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The First Minister met with Gillian Mackay MSP during his first full week in office to discuss the progress on introducing safe access zones in Scotland and ensuring women can access healthcare free from intimidation, harassment or unwanted influence.

“During that productive meeting, he made clear that Scottish Government support for Ms Mackay’s members’ bill is unequivocal and unwavering; this includes offering additional resource to Ms Mackay should she need it. Work to bring forward the legislation continues at pace and we hope the see a bill introduced as soon as possible.

“The First Minister and Ms Mackay agreed it is essential the bill moves forward as swiftly as practicable and is robust enough to withstand legal challenge."