- 08 Feb 19
One of the most striking images from Dublin Castle on May 24th last when the result of the Republic’s abortion referendum was announced was of a poster declaring: “The North is next!”
The famous “The North Is Next” poster from the day of the Repeal referendum had been made, brought to Dublin and held aloft by the daughter of a Unionist MP. A couple of nationalist politicians making their way through the throng towards the platform leant across and asked whether they could borrow it. Pictures of the pair excitedly waving the scrawled slogan to the cheering crowd featured prominently in media coverage.
A more interesting and relevant story could have been carved from the fact that the slogan signalled not any particular party’s readiness to carry the call for change into the North but on the North’s already-established eagerness for change. Politically, a very different proposition.
A report published just a month after the happy uproar in the Castle courtyard – produced by ARK, the North’s social policy hub, and financed by the Economic and Social Research Council – examined levels of support for liberalising abortion as indicated in the most recent figures from the NI Life and Times survey.
At present, abortion is permitted in the North only when a woman’s life is in danger or there is serious risk of long-term or permanent damage to her health. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality do not provide grounds for termination.
The ARK report showed that a sizable majority of Northerners support legal abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (81 percent), of serious abnormality (75 percent). Sixty-three percent agreed that, “It is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.”
Support for abortion reform transcends party allegiance. Eighty-eight of Alliance voters support abortion for fatal foetal abnormality; 86 per cent of Ulster Unionist voters; 80 percent of DUP supporters; and 75 and 74 per cent respectively for the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
When there was a chance of the woman dying, the figures were: 96 per cent of Alliance supporters; 90 per cent of UUP supporters; 81 per cent of DUP supporters; 79 per cent of SF supporters; and 74 per cent of SDLP supporters.
This suggests that, given an indicative referendum, a significantly higher proportion of Northerners would have voted Yes to reform than actually voted Yes in the South.
The most liberal Northern party on abortion is Alliance, followed by the Ulster Unionists and then the DUP, with the SDLP and Sinn Fein bringing up the rear.
Abortion is not a divisive issue in Ireland. It is a unifying issue, cross border and cross-community. This should be the starting point for discussion of Irish unity.
The Belfast woman with the placard said more about the future of the island than any political leader present. This should have been loudly proclaimed. Instead, it was virtually ignored.
It’s decades now since Gail at number eight cracked a smile, and she’s getting more miserable by the day. The most woebegone character clattering the cobblestones of Coronation Street. Looks like a depressed hamster.
A couple of weeks back, Gail told her mum, Audrey, that she’d sensed from the outset that Audrey’s suave consort Lewis – who twice cheated her out of all her money – “had a criminal mind.”
“And what would you know about criminal minds,” sniffed angry Audrey.
“You are forgetting, mam,” responded Gail, “that I have been married to a serial killer. I think I know a bit about the criminal mind.”
About 10 years ago in London, somebody introduced me to Hugh McIlvanney. He gave me a big hug. “I’ve read some of your stuff.”
“I’ve read loads of yours,” I stumbled in reply.
He was being kind, I was telling the truth.
The occasion was a memorial service for my former partner, the late Mary Holland. Mary and Hugh had been old friends, worked together for years at The Observer.
I had taken The Observer every Sunday for ages just to read his latest dispatch from the deep soul of sport – rather in the way some of us today buy the Sunday Indo for Gene Kerrigan.
Hugh was immensely proud and affectionally amused at his country’s foibles, wrote a wonderful account of Celtic winger “Jinky” Johnstone paddling a canoe out to sea off Largs on the night before a World Cup qualifier. Rescued at dawn, Jinky played a stormer at Hampden in the afternoon.
“Defenders came away from him with twisted blood.”
Hugh chronicled Scotland’s three-time failure at the final hurdle to reach the knock-out stages – losing key games to Brazil, 1974, Holland, 1978, the USSR in 1982 – falling short each time by goal difference of one. A most distressful country to be a football supporter in.
Elimination in ’82 came when Alan Hansen and Willie Miller brought each down while chasing the same ball, allowing the USSR to run through and score.
Reporting from the Argentina finals in 1978, Hugh defined the difference between Scottish and England fans abroad.
In a restaurant in Buenos Aires he encountered a table of English supporters trying haltingly to order fish and chips in Spanish. A few tables away, a man with tufty hair and tam-o’-shanter was calling, “Hey Jimmy, gi’e us anither yin o’ they tortillas.”
The poetic light of sport dimmed with his death on January 24, at 84.
And hey, he once gave me a hug.