In the aftermath of the historic repeal referendum, there have been significant events that illustrate just how serious the pressure on the establishment to give women and pregnant people in Northern Ireland the right to choose is. The Supreme Court had to acknowledge that the denial of abortion rights in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape is a violation of human rights. The House of Commons held an emergency debate on the issue of the denial of abortion rights in Northern Ireland – fifty years after the right to choose was won in Britain, only now is it regarded as an emergency!
Importantly, MPs have also tabled amendments to the Domestic Violence Bill which would decriminalise abortion across the UK by repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which currently prescribes a potential life sentence for having an abortion outside of legal exemptions or up to five years for helping someone do so. Even some prominent Tories have been forced to support this proposed change.
Local parties under pressure
Our local parties are also feeling the pressure. The DUP have no basis to claim to speak for the people of Northern Ireland or even their own voters on this issue. For example, Sammy Wilson – who gave a vicious speech in the Commons where he oozed hatred and contempt for women who have had abortions – is the MP for a constituency where 73% support unrestricted abortion access up to 12 weeks into pregnancy! Only a few months ago, Michelle O’Neill said Sinn Féin “isn’t in favour of abortion.” Now, she claims to champion the issue.
Sinn Féin has not led change but been dragged along in the wake of the movement. In June, the party had a conference which backed unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks. However, in December, Sinn Féin TDs refused to back this proposal on the Southern parliamentary committee looking at the issue, taking a more conservative position than representatives of the main establishment parties. Sinn Féin remains opposed to Westminster legislating for abortion access here, insisting it’s an issue for Stormont – in other words, women and pregnant people must continue to wait for change. When it comes to same-sex marriage, Sinn Féin has called for Westminster to legislate for equality in Northern Ireland. Why the difference?
A recent SDLP conference reaffirmed their “pro-life” position but granted their elected representatives the right to vote with their conscience on the issue. The UUP and Alliance have a similar position. This isn’t good enough – the only person who should have a choice on the issue of abortion is the pregnant person themselves. The pro-choice movement cannot place any trust in politicians who for decades have refused to trust women.
Mass movement the key to change
In the wake of the repeal referendum, our response must be to step up our campaigning. That is why ROSA and Women on Web organised the Bus4Choice which defied the law, with activists taking abortion pills to highlight their availability and demonstrate their safety. Along with a mass movement including protests and strikes, such civil disobedience was key to shifting the debate on abortion rights in the South.
Pro-choice activists and trade unionists must organise for the biggest possible mobilisation of people on the streets ahead of any vote on decriminalisation. We must seek solidarity from the labour movement in Britain. Politicians should be left in no doubt that, if our rights continue to be denied, they will face a campaign of civil disobedience that will make the law unworkable. The Socialist Party supports full decriminalisation of abortion but we must go further to ensure abortions are free, safe, legal and accessible here in Northern Ireland on the NHS.