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The votes in last week’s abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland had not yet all been counted when campaigners shifted their attention north. Absurdly, the result has been used to attack Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, with Sinn Fein’s deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, telling Robert Peston, “the conversation at home…. (is) very much about the constitutional future”.
Of course, for Irish republicans, a sunny week in Dublin or a day ending in ‘y’ are compelling reasons to attack British sovereignty and demand a border poll. Some parts of the media were more excited when Lord Ashdown felt moved to celebrate the “wonderful beauty” of abortion, in a fulsome post on Twitter. “My grandfather signed the Ulster declaration”, the Lib Dem peer gushed, “but if the UK Brexits and I lived in NI, I would be hard put not to consider re-unification”.
Ashdown likes to play up his Ulster links whenever it suits his political agenda – he lived for some years in the small seaside town of Donaghadee – but he’s exploited Northern Ireland issues with special fervour, in his eagerness to oppose Brexit. The peer has repeatedly described a border poll as ‘inevitable’, should the UK leave the single market, and showed the full warmth of his feelings for the province by declaring, “you never let the Ulstermen get their hands on the nation”, whenever the Conservatives struck a deal with the DUP.
Ashdown’s tweet should be regarded as it was conceived, with the utmost cynicism.
It shouldn’t really need to be said, but Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws have very little to do with its membership of the UK. Young people in the Republic may currently bask in a self-satisfied glow generated by their country’s supposed secularism, progressivism and modernity, but Britain passed liberal abortion laws in 1967. For better or worse, it will remain easier to terminate a pregnancy on the mainland, after the new Irish laws are introduced.
The Republic looks set to adopt a sensible position on abortion, but it may be for the wrong reasons, if the tenor of the campaign was any guide.
Twelve weeks seems like a humane threshold for unrestricted abortion – one that avoids the grisly, potentially traumatic late-term terminations that are possible in Britain. And it really is barbaric to demand that women carry to term and deliver babies with a ‘fatal abnormality’, who will not survive outside the womb. Beyond the twelve week limit, the viability of the foetus will guide Irish law, as is entirely reasonable.
These moral, social and practical questions should be at the centre of any debate about abortion, but too often the Irish ‘yes’ campaign instead emphasised demands from women for personal and bodily ‘autonomy’. Nobody is truly autonomous, either bodily or otherwise. When personal or bodily autonomy is presented as an absolute virtue it diminishes the bonds of responsibility and duty that connect families, communities and generations.
If the campaign rolls into Northern Ireland with its tone unaltered, it will chill religious and social conservatives, not just because of its legal proposals, but also because it reflects the type of individualism that persistently gnaws away at modern societies.
It’s genuinely regrettable that part of the United Kingdom has been allowed for so long to be excepted from a fundamental piece of legislation like the 1967 act. Many UK-minded Ulster unionists have been dismayed by successive governments’ willingness to allow Northern Ireland to become a ‘place apart’ in important ways. Yet, since 1998, devolution has entrenched major differences between all the country’s nations. We now have, for instance, at least three completely distinct versions of the NHS.
There’s no persuasive moral reason that Northern Ireland should not match the entitlements and commitments granted by the state to people across the UK, on social issues. Neither is there an easy way for the government to address these anomalies, without showing contempt for the principles of devolution, that it is bound to support.
The power-sharing government is not currently operating, but Theresa May and the Conservatives have refused to implement ‘direct-rule’ in Northern Ireland, even to address immediate, pressing problems in schools and hospitals. Setting aside her government’s dependence on DUP support, it would still be an astonishing change of approach if May proposed to legislate on one of the most emotive issues dividing opinions at Stormont.
Ruth Davidson summed up the dilemma facing central government perfectly: “If I was a politician in Northern Ireland I would absolutely one hundred percent vote to change the law, but…. I know how angry I would be if the House of Commons legislated on a domestic Scottish issue over the head of Holyrood”.
It’s clearly ridiculous to argue that Northern Ireland should leave the UK as a result of its abortion laws. However, there is a palpable sense – among younger people in particular – that the DUP keeps using its position to block the type of modern society they want to see. There may be no real or logical link between the two issues, but unionists would be very silly to ignore this mood, because it will eventually start to colour attitudes to Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.