The North is Next

Ellen McVeigh looks at the fight for Abortion Rights in the North of Ireland

Remember when we Repealed the 8th? Amazing craic, well done lads. I’m just here as a Person From the North Who Goes to College in the South to give you a wee reminder that we still don’t have those rights up here, and it’s not looking great.

I started writing this at home in Belfast (where I don’t have bodily autonomy) before packing my stuff to head back down to study in Cork (where I do), and it feels strange and exhausting. The result of the referendum in May, while amazingly positive and encouraging, felt bittersweet as I crossed the border. The Union flags started appearing, the Irish disappeared off the road signs, distances changed from kilometres to miles; but now something else was different too. The result in the South made the lack of action in NI glaringly obvious; we are now surrounded on all sides by people with more reproductive rights than we do (and don’t even get me started on Equal Marriage). At time of writing, NI has gone roughly 600 days without a formal government (I lost count a while ago). It’s frustrating but not without reason – there’s no point in going back into government if it involves putting aside abortion rights, equal marriage rights, or Irish language rights. Those who wish to brush past these contentious issues in order to reinstall a government are understandable, but the people of Northern Ireland have shown up to tell those in power that we aren’t going to sit around and listen to more of the same denial.

However, this currently places all of us in NI who can get pregnant in a state of limbo. For the past few months, Scotland and Wales have committed to extending their free abortion services to those in NI. While the legislation here is still being tweaked, our good pal Simon Harris has claimed that Northern Irish people will be able to access abortion services just as Southern residents. These are great steps forward, but they are a temporary solution to a permanent issue. For those who cannot afford to travel, cannot take time off work, or leave behind their existing children, for those who are undocumented – often the most vulnerable groups attempting to access abortion services – we are still leaving them behind. In the current political abyss that is the North of Ireland, these stories are falling through the cracks of ignorance.

As was seen during the Repeal campaign, the Abortion Rights Campaign never wavered from their stance that abortion services in Ireland should be ‘Free, Safe, Legal’ as they knew that this was the only way to look after the most vulnerable in society. The same can be said for the North and is the main reason why those campaigning in the North are not simply looking for an extension of the current UK legislation. Although the UK has quite widely accessible abortion services, abortion is still illegal outside of the relatively narrow legal framework; and the process of shifting abortion out of the legal system and leaving it in the hands of healthcare professionals is one that is ongoing. While being able to access abortion services largely ‘on demand’ (as the kids say) is helpful in providing abortion services, the looming threat of the law is always there, and while it’s there, stigma and shame surrounding the procedure remains.

While the Stormont government are all sitting around watching The Chase (I presume), Amnesty International and Alliance for Choice have turned their attention to Westminster to step in and end the pain and trauma of Northern Irish people who desperately need to terminate their pregnancy for whatever reason. Groups in NI who are campaigning for abortion rights, such as Amnesty International, have been dedicating much of their energy towards lobbying Conservative politicians in Westminster to make human rights issues in Northern Ireland a priority, as well as working alongside pro-choice groups throughout the UK who are campaigning for a nationwide complete decriminalisation of abortion. At their most recent Ard Fheis following the success of the Repeal campaign, Sinn Féin adopted an official pro-choice stance, although there is not much that can be done to change the law whilst there is no government, and although other parties are calling for a return to government whatever the circumstances, no other party has made any move to truly challenge the DUP’s hard-line stance against abortion.

There is much to be learnt from the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment, and so much encouragement gained from the confirmation of what we all already hoped was true – that Ireland is a country that trusts its citizens to know what is best for them and their families. However, the situation in the North is very different; in some ways it comes with less difficulties, and in other ways many more. Unlike the Republic, there is no constitutional ban on abortion, and therefore there is no need for a referendum. In practise, the only thing stopping a widening of abortion services in the North is the DUP and their constant blocking of any bills put through Stormont.

Interestingly, the most prominent difference between the two campaigns for reproductive rights is the power and presence of the Catholic Church. Although the referendum result proved the Catholic Church’s weakening grip over Irish people’s consciences and morality, their presence was greatly felt behind the ‘No’ campaign. The presence of the Church, for obvious reasons, is not the great moral centre of the North as it was in the South, and the divides in opinion on abortion between lines of religion and politics do not always fall the way people predict.

The DUP retain an uncompromising anti-choice stance, and although Sinn Féin is the only party with an officially pro-choice stance, their voters’ opinions tell a different story. While a poll earlier this year found that only 29% of voters in Northern Ireland opposed a widening of access to abortion services, when it came to the split between the two largest parties, more DUP voters (41%) than Sinn Féin voters (32%) were in favour of a liberalisation of abortion laws. The fact that the majority of the Northern Irish public support a liberalisation of abortion laws comes as no shock to any pro-choice campaigners, but this only serves to highlight how out of touch the politicians are from the people they claim to represent. The public opinion is clearly in favour of extending abortion access, but there is a gap between the politicians and the ordinary people whom they claim to represent. Since Northern Irish politics has been largely focussed on one issue for the past few decades (guess which one!!!), it’s no surprise that reproductive and LGBT+ rights have fallen to the wayside. But with Stormont gathering cobwebs and no referendum to push us towards a decision, these conversations are still being swept aside.

The result on the 25th May gave a great boost to the Pro-Choice movements and their supporters in the North, but to truly remove the shame and stigma around reproductive rights these conversations must move from the corners occupied by feminism and LGBT+ activism and into the foreground of public conversation. I’m honestly not sure what happens now in terms of abortion rights in the North, but I do know that #TheNorthIsNext, this conversation is only going to get louder, and we’re going to need your help.