The result of the referendum to repeal the constitutional ban on abortion was a huge step forward for the majority of Irish women writes Barney Cassidy. They will shortly be able, for the first time in the history of the southern Irish state, to decide if they want to continue with a pregnancy.
For women in the north of Ireland, a separate jurisdiction over which the British state has control, the situation is uniquely grim. They will soon be some of the only women in Europe for whom access to legal abortion is forbidden, unless they travel outside the six counties. (Malta is the only place in the EU where abortion is completely illegal)
The situation in the North of Ireland creates a major problem for Theresa May. She relies on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) voting with the Tories to guarantee her parliamentary majority through a supply and confidence deal purchased with a billion pound bribe. The DUP is the largest party in the northern state and while it is rightly famous for its members’ homophobia, climate change denial and creationism, it is also strongly opposed to a woman’s right to have an abortion.
One of its most high-profile MPs, Ian Paisley, son of a fundamentalist Christian minister, has said: “The settled will of the people has been to afford protections to the unborn life and protect the life of the mother.” He didn’t clarify how this “settled will” had been established and polling evidence suggests he is wrong.
His colleague Jim Wells added: “‘It is inevitable that the abortion industry based in Great Britain will set up clinics in border towns and promote their services to Northern Ireland women.” Party leader Arlene Foster has said the southern result has no bearing on the lives of women in the north.
Women in the north disagree. The weekend of the referendum saw a demonstration to the streets of Belfast with women demanding freedom to control their bodies.
As Foster and the DUP have pointed out, the moribund Belfast assembly theoretically has the right to decide on social policy matters, but it hasn’t met in eighteen months and won’t do anything anytime soon. Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler called on the government to begin negotiations with political parties in the north about legislation to extend abortion rights
A range of Tory and Labour MPs including Penny Mordaunt, the women and equalities minister and four of her predecessors have called for the London parliament to pass legislation allowing women in the north of Ireland the right to free, legal abortion close to home.
Sinn Féin’s leader in the north, Michelle O’Neill told a local radio programme “she does not want to import Britain’s abortion law to Northern Ireland as “it goes far further than what we would be proposing”. Meanwhile the SDLP voted to allow a free vote on the question of abortion, while continuing to describe itself as ‘pro-life’.
From the point of view of women in the north of Ireland it doesn’t really matter what constitutional mechanism gives them control over their own bodies. But two things are clear. The DUP is a very ideological party and its MPs will vote against any moves in the Westminster parliament to give women in the north the right to abortion and this is a clash May will want to avoid.
However, women in every part of Ireland are saying loud and clear that they don’t want priests or MPs telling them what to do with their own bodies and they have the power to change the situation. Socialists and feminists need to be offering solidarity to women in the north of Ireland in their struggle to decriminalise abortion and, at the moment, one of the ways of doing that is by putting pressure on British MPs to take stand in support of a change in the law.