If nothing else, the abortion debate at Westminster, instigated by a cross-party network of MPs and spearheaded by Stella Creasy, highlights the realities of dealing with social justice issues in a post-conflict society such as Northern Ireland.
There has been uneasy conclusion to the debate about whether to repeal Sections 58 and 59 from the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861. Quotes from MP Karen Bradley, in which she drew on her fears of “disenfranchising 1.8 million people” by decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland, have predominantly led media headlines.
With these comments, Bradley illustrates the political naiveté she has become known for in the north during her short tenure as NI secretary of state. Her argument that abortion rights should be a devolved issue offers a wilfully obtuse reading of the unique and complicated makeup of contemporary Northern Ireland.
Since the establishment of devolution, Northern Ireland has seen its political environment become increasingly polarised, with the electorate here in general voting along “green” and “orange” party lines. This means that that the DUP and Sinn Fein (who abstain from taking their Westminster seats) can create the illusion that their political and moral codes reflect the general population of the north.
However, this assessment is incredibly short-sighted. Bradley should take note of research carried out by Amnesty International which showed the majority of the Northern Irish public expressed a desire to see abortion laws liberalised and, pertinent to today, the decriminalisation of abortion. Further research carried out by Ulster University academics has revealed that 84 per cent of Northern Ireland trade union members support the decriminalisation of abortion.
These statistics are strikingly similar to the results of the referendum result in the south of Ireland, where the public overwhelmingly voted to liberalise abortion legislation and increase access to healthcare. This indicates that across the island, a liberal stance on reproductive justice is the majority view.
Social justice issues in Northern Ireland have been put on the back burner for decades as feminists battled with what the writer Susan McKay has termed “an armed patriarchy”. Indeed, the fact we are still debating about the right to healthcare in 2018 is a testament to how much still needs to be done to bring this pocket of Western Europe up to date with the most basic of human rights laws.
Often – as evidenced on a daily basis by the DUP – the loudest voices rule the roost. We in Northern Ireland know this well, remembering instances of DUP members “moo’ing” at members of the Women’s Coalition at Stormont in 1996. Is it any wonder that the Northern Ireland Assembly has the lowest representation of women out of any of the devolved governments in the UK and in the south of Ireland?
It is time for Karen Bradley and for those with power to step in and act on behalf of those in Northern Ireland who require abortion care. It is these people who are the disenfranchised. As Lady Sylvia Hermon put it in the debate this afternoon: “Think about the women compelled to leave Northern Ireland. For those who access pills … what is secretary of state saying to them? How long must we wait for change?”
How long will Conservative MPs like Karen Bradley allow themselves to be held to ransom by the DUP in order to keep power? How long will Westminster continue to allow Northern Ireland to languish under the yoke of a law that was created before women had the vote? The UN has repeatedly stated that “criminalisation, denial of delay of safe abortion or post-abortion care are forms of gender-based violence”.
The United Kingdom cannot brand itself as a modern, forward-thinking country while maintaining this status quo. Indeed, with so many mentions of the Irish referendum in the debate today, it seems that for the first time, the British government are waiting to take their cues from the Irish – ironic given that Ireland is a country long derided by many in GB for being backward thinking.
Reflecting on the debate, Goretti Horgan of Alliance for Choice Derry stated: “Abortion is already happening in Northern Ireland, but many of those using abortion pills fear prosecutions under the 1861 Act and so delay seeking medical assistance when they need it.
“The proposal to decriminalise abortion across the UK is the ideal solution to square the circle of abortion being a devolved issue while ensuring that no woman will feel unable to go to a hospital if she is haemorrhaging.
“We need the government to accept an amendment to the Domestic Violence Bill that will repeal Sections 58 and 59; while we wait for that, we will stay on the streets to demand our rights.”
On 10 June, activists will take to the streets of Belfast in their thousands to demand decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.
It is time that the rights of who have been truly disenfranchised – the women who kept communities, families, friendships and this troubled land functioning throughout the Troubles – are fought for.
Maeve O’Brien is a teaching fellow in English literature at Ulster University
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