- 19 Jul 19
For a long time, religious conservatives have imposed a punitive regime on women in the North, in relation to abortion. Now, the initiative has been wrested from the God squad by a vote of parliament in the UK to allow terminations, if the NI Assembly isn’t up and running by October 21.
Religion is at the root of the constitutional shenanigans at Westminster. God is always in there, stirring things up.
DUP leaders Sammy Wilson, David Simpson, Slimeball Paisley and the rest of the bubble-brained boneheads who control the North’s biggest party caterwaul that the abortion bill introduced by Labour MP Stella Creasy drives a coach and horses through the devolution settlement enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
A less sensitive person than myself might take pleasure in the party’s agitated predicament. After all, the DUP didn’t much fancy the Agreement in the first place, and only went along with it in order to keep Ulster safe from prowling abortionists and other predators on the moral values of the Protestant people.
The Agreement categorised a number of issues, including abortion and equal marriage, as “devolved” – that is, law to be made at Stormont, not at Westminster. This effectively gave the DUP a veto over changes in these areas which the party found repugnant.
But now the shutters are up at Stormont, and the veto has been shorn of meaning. In the real world, power cannot be handed over to a comatose body.
It is against this background that the dogged campaigns of feminists, gay liberationists and socialists have finally flowered and burst into bloom. Creasy, and Conor McGinn – who steered equal marriage through the labyrinthine ways and means of parliament – were able to step forward and argue persuasively that the Stormont veto on reform of abortion and marriage law should be done away with.
It is a measure of the length of the road that’s been travelled that just 10 years ago an MP, now a senior member of the Shadow Cabinet, burst into tears as she explained on the phone that she had to withdraw a motion on abortion law in the North, which she’d submitted to the Commons, after being summoned to Downing Street. She was told face-to-face by Gordon Brown that, if she persisted, the peace process in the North might unravel. There’d be blood on the streets if she didn’t pipe down.
Thus, the reason progress has proven so slow has had to do not only with the bluster and threats of the DUP, but also with the cowardice and lack of commitment to equal rights of party bigwigs at Westminster. It wasn’t until the noise on the streets became too loud to ignore that some of them remembered they’d been ultra-progressive on equal marriage and the Right to Choose all along.
Better late than never, I suppose.
CHARGED WITH OBTAINING PILLS
Westminster’s change of attitude also reflected the fact that the God squad has choked on the abortion pill.
A pioneering piece of research on ‘Self-managed abortions in Northern Ireland’, produced by the social policy unit of Ulster University and published last March, highlights the way relatively easy access to Mifepristone and Misoprostol has made aspects of abortion law North and South incapable of enforcement and thereby, for practical purposes, pointless.
The UU report recalls that, during the abortion debate in the Republic in 2017, leading obstetrician and gynaecologist Peter Boylan “pointed out to politicians that when the laws on abortion were enacted, ‘Neither the world wide web nor the abortion pill had been invented.’
“A ban on abortion is ‘unworkable…The genie is out of the bottle…’ “The fact that women could self-manage abortion up to 10 weeks outside the formal health system (was) one of the arguments for making abortion available on request up to 12 weeks.”
A more punitive approach persisted in the North. The UU report itemises a mother being charged in 2015 with obtaining pills for her 15-year-old daughter; a 21-year-old pleading guilty the same year to procuring an abortion by using pills; a couple accepting a police caution – admitting an offence which will remain on the record for six years; and two campaigners’ homes raided by the PSNI looking for pills.
In March 2017 alone, between 15 and 20 women had pills seized by Northern police or customs officers. Most were asked to come to a police station for questioning. None were charged.
The UU report in March concluded that, “In the absence of a local Assembly, Westminster needs to act. It has the right to act under the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK and the devolved administrations, and the duty to act as the State Party responsible for human rights.”
This is the legal basis on which Westminster has now enacted the law laying down that in the absence of an operating Assembly by October, the wishes of Westminster will come into play: abortion in the North will be decriminalised.
Two years ago, more than 200 women in the North signed a document confessing to having procured pills for themselves or others. The document was handed to the PSNI – but none of the signatories was charged.
Three women, Kitty O’Kane, Colette Devlin and Diana King, then presented themselves to the PSNI in Derry with signed statements describing how they’d accessed the pills. Still the authorities sat on their hands.
The law remained punitive. But the game was now up, North and South. The women of Ireland had begun their dazzling transformation of our society.