Legalising abortion in Northern Ireland is vote-neutral for the Westminster parties

Last week, U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump provoked outrage when he said that women should be punished for having an abortion.  Unusually for the self-styled maverick, he walked back the comments in subsequent interviews, saying that, actually, the woman is the victim in such cases.  The idea that a woman who seeks an abortion should be criminalised (instead of or in addition to the person performing the procedure) is far outside mainstream political opinion, even in a country where religious fundamentalists have high levels of politically engagement.
Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, a woman has been given a criminal record and a three-month suspended sentence for aborting her baby in Northern Ireland.
Writing in at the Independent, Siobhan Fenton analyses how it can be the case that people in the United Kingdom find themselves with fewer rights than their fellow citizens.

The especially shocking element of Northern Ireland’s abortion ban is how Westminster supports it through its silence. … Westminster could easily overturn the abortion ban by passing legislation in the House of Commons. There is a particularly clear case for doing this as a High Court found in November that Northern Ireland’s abortion ban breaches international human rights law.
British politicians’ total disinterest in Northern Ireland’s abortion ban stems partly from indifference and political expedience. Simply put, there are no votes to be won in English MPs getting involved in Northern Irish affairs

This is correct, but it’s also incomplete.
The political landscape in Northern Ireland is very different to the rest of the United Kingdom.  It returns Westminster MPs from entirely different parties.  The nationalist/unionist divide dominates, and three biggest parties—The DUP, Sinn Féin and the UUP—all define themselves by that issue.
Despite the SNP whitewash at the election in 2015, Scotland did at least return one Conservative, one Labour and one Liberal Democrat MP to Westminster, and all those parties are contesting the Holyrood elections in May 2016.  Although the SNP currently dominates, in the long-term all three parties could plausibly win back seats at the Westminster and Holyrood parliaments.  Their policies for Scotland, and their relationship to the Holyrood government, are crucial to their electoral chances and the possibility of securing power at Westminster.
By contrast, the three main UK-wide parties won zero seats in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats and Labour did not even field candidates, preferring instead electoral pacts with the Alliance and SDLP parties, respectively.
The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats do not appear to be contesting the 2016 elections to the Stormont Assembly either.
Despite the absence of any Northern Ireland representatives on their benches, these three political parties together have an unassailable bloc of MPs.  They could easily work in concert to enact quick and short legislation at Westminster that would extend access to abortion to Northern Ireland women.  This would grant a right that is already a reality for people elsewhere in the UK.  It would not gain them any votes… but it could hardly lose them any votes either.
Of course, such a move would trample on the principle of devolved government, and I imagine that Sinn Féin politicians in particular would make the case that Westminster was imposing its will at the expense of Irish cultural values (abortion is illegal in the Irish Republic too).  They might even be correct in that analysis, even if Ireland has become more socially liberal on other cultural issues like Equal Marriage.
I think the way public services are administered, and how taxpayers  money is spent, can and should be decided at a regional or local level. The needs of different areas of the UK demand different choices.
But I think that while the United Kingdom persists, the rights that we enjoy as citizens must be consistent throughout each of the four nations.  Westminster politicians should act quickly to fix the anomaly that this sad case has highlighted, even in the face of protests from MLAs.

Libel Reform

It might seem a trivial thing to mention when abortion rights are being discussed, but it’s also true that free speech laws are currently different in Northern Ireland.  The Stormont Assembly incorporated none of the Westminster Defamation Act 2013, meaning that the province still operates under the old, discredited libel laws. A priority for the new Stormont Assembly should be to fix that with a Northern Ireland Defamation Bill.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.