No sooner had the returns officially confirmed a comfortable decision to repeal the Eighth amendment in the Republic of Ireland last Friday than a collective gaze turned Northward to the still conservative abortion law in Northern Ireland. The country is the only part of the United Kingdom that permits abortion only as a medical procedure to save the mother’s life, a distinction retained since the 1967 Abortion Act passed with the simple clause in Section 7 (3) that ‘This Act does not extend to Northern Ireland’. Now, the last defences against abortion elsewhere have been defeated, leaving Northern Ireland as the only such point in the British Isles with reason to entice pro-choicers towards campaigning there too.
Last Friday’s referendum proved beyond ambiguity that the Republic is no longer a Catholic country. It is very sad, but that is that. The Save the 8th campaign, which fought valiantly for life, said in defeat that ‘every time an unborn child has his or her life ended in Ireland, we will oppose that, and make our voices known’, but it must do so by raising awareness of abortion rather than and, for those so inclined, prayer. Perhaps there is something to the Father Ted-inspired solution of saying Mass. And while hindsight makes everything seem simpler, it is no stretch to say that the result was not in doubt, certainly if polls were to be faithfully believed. The country had some time ago passed the threshold of no longer recognising the unborn as human life, so the result was more a clarification than a ‘quiet revolution’ purred by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. There is therefore a relatively clear path to legalisation north of the border. No one with any serious interest in the island would conflate the states of politics of the two nations or the influence of religion on them, but this is still instructive as to the path of Northern Ireland now.
This is because abortion is not really a legal debate. It is impossible to know how many voters were swung on the basis of the arguments about trimesters and the difficulties faced by pregnant women seeking an abortion for whatever social or personal reasons, but it probably was not that many. Certainly the result would not have been changed. Abortion is as binary an issue as you can get. You can debate tax rates and education policy all you like, but you either acknowledge unborn life, and the right to it, or you don’t. You certainly don’t need a religious faith to ‘get’ it – Christopher Hitchens was one figure who expressed at least strong reservations about killing the unborn – but it is statistically strongly involved.
No pleas about autonomy will shake a belief in life. No number of agonising cases where women have gone through traumatic circumstances – where relative poverty, mental ill-health, family difficulties, and whatever else are in – with admirable resolve that many pro-lifers may never themselves experience will justify the removal of the infant from the equation. Conversely, no emphasis on the biology of the unborn will shake a firm view in the woman’s right to treat whatever is encased in or linked to her body as she pleases among those who plead choice. This pro-lifer respects those see it completely differently, a respect that’s certainly not universally reciprocated. People will argue about it for centuries with no reconciliation. There will be none as long as pro-lifers refuse to see past the supremacy of the right to life of the unborn infant (and, morally, why should they?), and pro-choicers fail to see past abortion as an inconsequential individual preference with no consequence for other human life, as though we were talking about a taste for liquorice.
This makes the battle for pro-lifers in Northern Ireland not so much an uphill as a doomed one. It is difficult to see how a quiet (occasionally not so quiet) minority of opinion in the region can mount an effective resistance to the forces for reform, stimulated as they are by the same chorus of celebrity and political endorsement that cheered Yes easily over the line south of the border. Only the existing stasis is Stormont presents an effective stay of execution for the existing law in Northern Ireland, and indeed a literal one for the unborn life that depends on it. The culture of life that upholds the protections is too weak to continue doing so indefinitely.
There are two certainties about legalisation in Northern Ireland from a pro-life perspective. It will be wrong, and it will happen. 72% of respondents to a poll on behalf of Amnesty International poll in October 2016 endorsed a liberalisation in the cases of rape and incest, with 58% backing outright decriminalisation for women. Even allowing for Amnesty being an actively pro-abortion organisation whose campaign would stand to benefit from such a result, this is a clear result. Earlier this year, Amnesty welcomed a report by the UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women which condemned Northern Irish restrictions, with spokeswoman Grainne Teggart calling the laws ‘draconian’.
The report stated that ‘Denial of abortion and criminalisation of abortion amounts to discrimination against women’, condemning further the perceived ‘systematic violations of rights’ in Northern Ireland. No mention was made of the rights of the unborn infants.
Nonetheless, Arlene Foster has insisted that the Irish vote should have ‘no impact’ on the Northern Irish situation. Anne Milton, Penny Mordaunt, Maria Miller, and Nicky Morgan have urged a Commons free vote on a domestic abuse bill onto which an amendment loosening Northern Irish restrictions may be tacked. Baroness Chakrabarti has made the Prime Minister’s support a test of her feminism, which is lovely when you are not in charge of a government dependent on a party whose chairman, Lord Morrow, warned such a move ‘would risk losing the support of the DUP’. Hence the Prime Minister is a misstep away from the prospect of the rug being pulled from under her government, taking her mandate to settle the border issue with it. And abortion is as prickly an issue as any other as far as the DUP is concerned.
This has been true every since the DUP bound its votes to the government’s survival nearly a year ago. The entire legitimacy of the government has been predicated on the apparent meanness of the DUP, described as frighteningly fundamentalist as is helpful to the cause of undermining the government. The one billion pounds that sealed the agreement has helped to foam this, as though impoverished NHS nurses and frontline police officers were seeing funds requisitioned from their hands and funnelled directly into groups and churches ideologically aligned with the Westboro Baptist Church. Never mind that the permanent position of Northern Irish MPs on the backbenches has sidelined the importance of Northern Irish infrastructure, and that the DUP is doing nothing other than advocating for its constituents’ interests as the opportunity of influence over government policy for once presents itself. The alliance was always going to be tricky for the modern Tories’ image.
In fact the partnership is not so much opportune as necessary. Acting on the assumption that neither the Conservatives nor the DUP would support a Corbyn-led administration, no arithmetic configuration of the elected MPs would yield a majority in support of Corbyn. With the Liberal Democrats digging their heels in against the threat of what alliance with the Tories had previously reduced them to, and everyone else noxious at the thought of facilitating up to five more years of a Tory government, the confidence and supply arrangement was a near inevitability, barring another election. The Conservative-DUP alliance is the only bulwark against the kind of stalemate that would leave the country without a government, and possibly another election, because what Brexit needs right now is more prolonged uncertainty. It is to that stalemate that we would return if the DUP’s support were withdrawn. So here we are.
Yet the DUP were not elected primarily to frustrate abortion liberalisation efforts, however justly. Obviously no attempts should be made to distill the voting patterns to reflections of a single issue, but it’s not a drastic simplification to view the results in terms of the border issue. View a map of the election results, and you will see the border coated in the green of Sinn Fein, with Northeastern constituencies going almost uniformly for the DUP. With respect to the women who will find themselves in crisis pregnancies over the next few years, they probably didn’t vote that way overwhelmingly on abortion law.
‘Abortion’ actually appeared nowhere in the Sinn Fein manifesto – or that of the DUP – for last year’s general election, while ‘Brexit’ was the focus, garnering well over one hundred mentions. The electorate on the border voted for a raft of special measures for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom centred around a special status within the European Union. Desirable though abortion reform would be to many of these voters, British politicians who seek to undermine, or who risk undermining, a frictionless border by placing abortion at the centre of their priorities at the expense of a well mandated government should examine what that will mean for the health of unionism.
Solving the Irish border is a matter that has so far defeated all of our willing politicians, prolonged the elementary stage of negotiations, and invited all kinds of stupid misunderstandings from otherwise educated thinkers. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the figurehead of the hard Brexiteers in the Tory party as the chairman of the European Research Group, has most recently offered the Swiss border as an analogue of the Irish situation, boiling it down to a matter of political will on the part of the civil service and other bureaucrats – as opposed to the dozens of bilateral deals that collectively serve the unobstructed border of a Schengen state. Very little from the left has offered much hope either.
All this noise is useless and will remain so until our polity finds a grip on why the border is presently frictionless. As long as the goods that travel across the border can be assumed to comply with single market regulations, checks are unnecessary at the border. And as long as that assumption cannot be made, the Republic will be obliged to conduct checks. Nothing and nobody on the border is served by British politicians misapprehending or oversimplifying the issue. And how miserable it is of the current Parliamentary crop that abortion is discussed with fervour while a fraction of the effort is made to solve a far deeper problem that threatens to inflame border tensions. In normal political times, there is nothing to stop politicians focusing on more than one issue at once, but the DUP calling into question the stability of the government makes for a good time to reevaluate priorities.
The government’s whole strategy on withdrawing from the EU, to the extend that you can call two swiftly rejected and unworkable proposals on a bed of confusion a strategy, might depend on the delicacy of the government’s approach to Brexit. Two apparently unrelated issues, save for their shared tendency to vex Northern Irish citizens (and Brits) and partition them into unequal camps, might be not be altogether independent. Little wonder that Theresa May has stressed abortion as a strictly devolved matter and kept herself at a wise arm’s length. The success of her government and its resolution of the border is a matter of national importance. She must not lose control of it for the sake of a devolved competence.