News of the landslide vote to legalise abortions in Ireland this weekend was met with calls for the law to be changed in Northern Ireland too. Sinn Fein’s leaders held up a sign at Dublin Castle reading ‘The North Is Next’, while in London, female ministers put pressure on Theresa May to demonstrate her feminist credentials by backing reform.
This issue, and the continued lack of same sex marriage in Northern Ireland, are finally being recognised by the rest of Britain and Ireland as a serious infringement of rights. While this mainstream discussion is appreciated, we must face the reality.
In an ideal world, Westminster could legislate in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but this would undermine the Good Friday Agreement as much as the disastrous Brexit most of us are trying to avoid.
As with the rest of Britain, referendums are not required to change the law in Northern Ireland, and nor should they be. As much as there is a great sense of pride that comes with having your rights fought and voted for by your fellow citizens, a defeat by this method would be equally crushing.
We need Sinn Fein and the DUP back at Stormont to legislate for the people on these issues – and all the rest – and the DUP should no longer be permitted to maintain the current impasse because of their own unwillingness to accept equality. The Petition of Concern they used to block same sex marriage for years must be reformed, and its abuse must be disallowed.
The DUP knows the tide is turning. They have fenced themselves in, not just to the northeast of Ireland, but mentally – in a regressive, conservative mindset which is increasingly out of step with vast swathes of voters, particularly the younger generations who are flexing their political muscles.
The party now finds itself in familiar hypocritical territory: threatening to self-implode if it doesn't get the same Brexit treatment as the rest of Britain, while simultaneously relishing its divergence on basic rights like same sex marriage and abortion.
At a 1992 political conference, then UUP member Arlene Foster criticised Ireland’s stance on abortion as “downright insulting” to women, calling the country’s constitution “an archaic crutch to the Roman Catholic church.” How times change.
This was one of the most familiar arguments unionists made for over a century – that being ruled by Dublin meant being ruled by Catholicism, that "Home Rule is Rome Rule", and once, it may have been true, but no longer.
Now, as Ireland shakes off the grip of the Catholic Church and inspires the world with its progressive, modern style of democracy, it is the DUP who use their religious dogmatism to deny rights to the Northern Irish people. It’s as laughably ironic as it is maddening.
And while Arlene Foster claimed Friday’s vote has "no impact" on Northern Ireland, the cat is out of the bag, and things are changed utterly. The island is changing without distinction to the border. Women facing crisis pregnancies in Newry will now surely drive south to Dundalk, and those in Derry can head to Letterkenny where their needs can be met. Can the DUP really turn a blind eye?
While the party enjoys a large electoral mandate for now, many people give the DUP their vote simply to keep out Sinn Fein, but many unionists do not believe in The Handmaid’s Tale style dystopia some of the party’s uber faithful would like to see established.
Now it is clear. Marriage equality and abortion rights are the law of the land in the rest of Britain and Ireland. Polls show people in Northern Ireland are largely in favour of reform too, with 76% in favour of marriage equality, while only 29% now oppose reforming the law on abortion.
The DUP are clinging on to their hold over social issues, but their fingers are slipping. The only real border that exists in Ireland is the one they have drawn around themselves.
Northern Ireland will refuse to be turned into a backwater simply because some unionists are terrified of a united Ireland which would give equality for all. The world is now watching, and the rest of us will continue to fight until we get the rights we deserve.
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