- 08 Jun 18
Despite the DUP's kicking and screaming, there can be little doubt that abortion reforms sweeping Ireland will have an impact North of the Border.
The abortion referendum may have done for the DUP.
Arlene Foster’s outfit presents itself as the hardest-line “pro-life” party around but depends on a constituency as pro-choice as any other on the island. This contradiction has long been lurking at the edge of Northern politics. It’s been brought out into the open and neon-lit by the giddy triumph of Repeal.
Foster, Sammy Wilson, Nelson McCausland etc. queued up for the cameras to insist that the scenes of joy at Dublin Castle had nothing to do with the North. They were wrong about that, and are wrong, too, in imagining that they speak for a Northern majority – or even a majority of Northern Protestants – or even a majority of DUP voters – when it comes to women’s rights.
Last year’s Life and Times Survey by researchers at Ulster University showed that a substantial majority in the North wants liberal reform of abortion law and that there’s no significant difference between the attitudes of Protestants and Catholics. Insofar as there’s variation, Protestants are more likely than Catholics to take a liberal view.
On the issue at hand, DUP supporters are generally more progressive than supporters of Sinn Fein. Eighty percent of DUP voters want legal abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, against 74 percent of Sinn Fein voters. Where a woman’s life is in danger, 81 percent of DUPers favour legal abortion, against 79 percent of SF supporters.
Presented with seven scenarios in which women might choose abortion, Alliance Party supporters were the most likely among the five biggest Northern parties to support legalisation, followed by, in order, the Ulster Unionists, the DUP, Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
This has implications for the likelihood of the Stormont Assembly being revived and abortion and adjacent issues being settled, as all sides say they want, by vote of local elected representatives. We have been here before, or hereabouts.
Fourteen years ago, the Assembly had been suspended as a result of seemingly irreconcilable differences over policing and justice. At that time, no zombie Assembly had been left to lurch around the abandoned Stormont building. London moved in and imposed direct rule.
In November 2004, the Commons passed the Civil Partnership Act. DUP leader Ian Paisley intervened: “The minister will be aware that in all political parties in Northern Ireland there is opposition to this Bill…Why is the Bill not going to be left until the Assembly is up and running again so that the people of Northern Ireland can make the decision themselves?”
Equality minister Jacqui Smith hit back. The remedy is in your own hands, she told him. Restore the Stormont institutions and we will be happy to hand the issue over to you.
In December the following year, two friends of mine who deserve more than a footnote in the history of the period, Grainne Close and Sharon Sickles, emerged from Belfast City Hall with a hop and a skip into crisp winter sunshine and a blizzard of confetti and cheers, having just become the first same-sex couple anywhere in these islands to be joined in civil partnership.
This could be just the start of it, aghast DUP members lamented. Gay civil partnerships today, next thing you know, transgendered abortionists will be stalking Protestant sheep across the hills of north Antrim. A devolved Assembly with a built-in veto for each sectarian bloc, as per the Good Friday Agreement, will suddenly have seemed not only acceptable but urgently necessary.
The deal with Sinn Fein was unveiled at St. Andrews in October 2006 to the approval of commentators charmingly proclaiming that Paisley’s endorsement of the power-sharing path which he had been warning for decades would put the North on the high road to hell could be put down to the mellowing effects of old age.
The point was that for as long as Orange v. Green remained the basic divide in the restored Assembly, differences on moral and social issues subsumed within separate voting blocs, nothing the DUP disapproved of could pass.
This may not be true anymore, not because Unionists have been persuaded to abandon the Union – there’s no sign of that – but because the issues which have now thrillingly come to the fore have nothing to do with the community anybody comes from.
When the DUP says that the constitutional position – partition – must be the decisive consideration, and when Sinn Fein says it wants legal abortion but only under Irish and not under British law, what they are saying simply is that women must wait.
But will they? The contradiction between voting patterns and views on issues other than partition has been evident since the first border post was erected almost 100 years ago. Now the contradiction is sharper, deeper, more keenly-felt than ever. The fact that the DUP is unrepresentative of its “own” voters, particularly of its women voters, has been on open display on our television screens since the campaign for Repeal in the South began to gather the momentum which carried it to victory.
I hear it constantly said that the DUP is in a powerful position on account of its deal with Teresa May at Westminster. In fact, the party’s position has never been more parlous.
Another victory for Repeal.