Ireland North: Sectarian parties impose new hurdles to women’s abortion rights

Buildings at Stormont, Belfast, seat of the power-sharing legislative assembly

It took a vote in Westminster in 2019, initiated by right-wing backbench Labour MP Stella Creasy and backed by virtually all the right-wing parties in that chamber, to vindicate the rights of women in Northern Ireland to have an abortion.

At the time, the vote was welcomed by activists, women, trade unionists and socialists who had been campaigning for the right to abortion over a period of decades, both north and south. In that period, the campaign in the north has been largely led by women’s organisations often working closely with the leadership of the trade union movement.

The vote in Westminster was seen as the only way to overcome the blockade on women’s reproductive rights resulting from the veto of the main parties at Stormont buildings, the seat of the power-sharing Assembly. In the twenty years since the devolved government was established with the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, no moves were made to address the absence of reproductive rights in the north.

The long road to abortion rights

While the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were and remain outright opponents of a woman’s right to abortion, Sinn Féin has long wavered on the issue. In 2015, ahead of the successful referendum campaign to secure the right to abortion, albeit with limitations, in the Republic of Ireland, they adopted a strongly pro-choice position. In the North, where their social base of support and party is more conservative, they have struggled to hold a consistent all-Ireland position. After the 2019 Westminster vote, the party attempted to position themselves as being uncritically in support of the move but more quietly they have since sought a policy of restricting access in the North to better match the situation in the South.

In the North, under the Westminster act, abortion is permitted in all circumstances up to 12 weeks; and up to 24 weeks, where there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health. There is no time limit in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when there has been a diagnosis of a serious physical or mental impairment that would cause a serious disability. By comparison in the South, while abortion is also permitted during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, it is only allowed later in cases where the pregnant woman’s life or health is at risk, or in some cases of a fatal foetal abnormality.

Clearing the way for the return of Stormont

The Westminster vote which overrode the veto in the Stormont Executive solicited an angry response from the DUP in particular. They claimed it represented an erosion of the principles of devolved government (even though the power-sharing Assembly Executive in N Ireland was still in suspension as a result of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ scandal). In reality, the move by Westminster removed a major obstacle in the path of the DUP and Sinn Féin re-establishing the Stormont Executive. The DUP, and to some extent Sinn Féin, could deny their culpability for introducing the measure to their backwoodsmen and women – while the Sinn Féin leadership duo of Mary-Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill used it to better burnish their feminist credentials and to demonstrate the ‘failed state’ nature of the north once again.

Not long after the law was passed, the Stormont Executive was duly re-established; however, the gap between commitments in Westminster and delivery to women in Northern Ireland remained unbridged.

The gap between law and delivery

The incoming Ulster Unionist Party Health Minister Robin Swann decided that the local health trusts – not the regional health board – would take the lead in commissioning abortions. The result was that women requiring an abortion were left dependent on provision by each Health Trust which was uneven and patchy.

Things were to get worse with the Covid-19 pandemic in which the conduct of abortions by the Trusts – like many other types of surgical procedure – has been massively impacted by the repeated lockdowns. In the absence of a regional approach to ensure delivery within a reasonable timeframe, the situation facing women has worsened considerably.

Once again, those unable to get abortions in Northern Ireland have been forced to travel – in the middle of a lockdown – to England to obtain them. The impact on working-class women in this situation is, of course, even greater. At present, the situation for many women in Northern Ireland is not that different from that which existed before the Westminster vote.

Reaction clawing back

Over recent months, human rights advocates highlighted the situation as a breach of the UN’s Convention for the elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which the UK government is a signatory. That campaigning work forced the Tory party Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, to warn the Stormont Executive of its legal duties to enforce a woman’s right to abortion.

The DUP responded to this challenge with claims that the current regime allows for abortions not only in cases of fatal fetal abnormality but in cases of non-fatal conditions, e.g. Down’s syndrome. By making this argument they sought to counterbalance the right of women to abortions with the right to life of those with disabilities.

Unfortunately, the DUP motion seeking to limit access to abortion was passed overwhelmingly with only 12 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) supporting the right to choose. Sinn Féin, despite their purported support of reproductive choice, sat on their hands and abstained on the vote.

Sinn Féin on the fence

As is increasingly usual for the party with political hot potatoes, Sinn Féin attempted to speak out of both sides of its mouth. Both deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey spoke on the floor of the Assembly against the motion (and in favour of the right to abortion) but did so making clear that they spoke in a personal capacity. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin as a party accused the DUP of aiming “to pit one vulnerable group of people against another” and explained to the public that was why they abstained. Party President Mary Lou McDonald TD (member of the parliament in Dublin) claimed that the vote was a ‘stunt’ and that this was why they abstained.

None of these explanations is true. The party’s position is that they seek to harmonise, or in reality restrict, a woman’s right to abortion in the North to match the regime in the South – essentially, they are seeking to limit women’s rights on an ‘all Ireland’ basis.

The vote on the floor of the Assembly has no authority whatsoever. The Minister of Health has a legal responsibility to ensure the rights of women in Northern Ireland as determined by the vote in Westminster and the CEDAW provisions. But, so far, there is no indication that any such action is likely.

Eroding devolved authority

Brandon Lewis now seeks to legally enforce the right to abortion above the heads of the Stormont Executive through a Ministerial order. The DUP reacted strongly to that possibility. Initially, they stated that if a Westminster Minister could do this in relation to abortion then they could roll-out the imposition of water rates (taxes) just as easily in the future. Water rates have been repeatedly suspended by consecutive Stormont Executives as a result of mass opposition to their previous attempts to enforce them.

Representatives of the Green party and Alliance, both liberal parties and supportive of the right to abortion, are encouraging the Tories in Westminster to do precisely this. They argue that this would not open the door to further erosion of devolved powers because this is a special case of the denial of the rights of women and a breach of CEDAW.

Stormont more reactionary than the Tories?

The reactionary politics so dominant in Stormont has brought us to the point where women in Northern Ireland are left looking to the Tories in Westminster to enforce legislation above the heads of local politicians in order to vindicate what are basic human rights.

The logic of the Tory Brexit project will mean they will seek much greater powers over the regional authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This has already been evidenced by the passage of the Internal Markets bill. While there may be a particular rights-based rationale for intervening to deliver basic women’s rights, it would be highly likely that the Tories will seek to exploit this to extend further their powers.

The workers’ movement will need to face up to the serious consequences for workers arising if the Tories use this as a precedent to intervene more widely.

Need for workers’ movement to mobilise for equality

Women, workers, youth and socialists must redouble our efforts to build a movement capable of securing basic reproductive rights for women and for trans-people. We must force the Assembly parties here to uphold the rights of women. The trade union movement has a particular responsibility to take the lead in building that demand.

This issue further demonstrates the need for a mass party of the working-class in the north; one which will put equality and the rights of working-class people first. The unrestricted right to abortion, a position which centres abortion on the right of women to choose, will be a central demand of such a party.

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March 2021