The scale of the verdict in the Article 8 referendum will create a new surge and a new context in Northern Ireland politics. While it would be an exaggeration to say that it might even sweep away the entire unionist position if it does not radically change, even that is not inconceivable, if added to the impact of a hard Brexit.
NI abortion reform and the risk to the UK government
While all bets are off, it would be unwise to think that the DUP will easily assent to abortion reform by Westminster and the wishes of the Union majority. It is not in their tradition. However passionately and widely held, support in the Commons for abortion reform in Northern Ireland will not be strong enough to risk DUP wrath and bring the government down. Yet while that is true, it may underestimate the power of support for women’s rights across Westminster. The cumulative effect of the huge majority in the south and results from recent NI opinion polls will produce demands for more decisive action this time. MPs are now more likely to challenge the DUP’s credentials for remaining within the Union in a way that may hit home.
Might a private member’s Bill with the support of all GB parties and the government be the face saver for all sides including the DUP? They could avoid direct responsibility for the change by abstaining or even opposing it and still not risk a government led by Jeremy Corbyn.
There is the half precedent of the DUP not resisting the cross party demand to fund NI abortions in GB. But that was an administrative decision that did not challenge Stormont’s powers or engage the DUP vote in the Commons . An NI Abortion Bill would surely fare differently from the private member’s Bill for same sex marriage which the government blocked out of respect for devolution and the chances of restoring it.
But any move to let parliament decide is tangled up in the increasingly fraught politics of Brexit. If Parliament were to decide on NI abortion why not on the terms of the withdrawal treaty? That is a precedent the government would be determined to avoid.
NI abortion reform and the politics of Stormont
Make no mistake, while technically legal, overriding the powers of Stormont even in limbo would be a very major step. If overridden on abortion, why not override on all the other deadlock issues – Irish language rights, same sex marriage, an NI Bill of Rights, dealing with the past? The move would exceed the override over Brexit by which Westminster has basically – and perfectly legally – ignored the SNP government ‘s refusal to give consent to the EU withdrawal Bill despite the local Remain majority. The political cost there may eventually be Indyref2.
Will the impact of the abortion referendum catalyse the return of Stormont or drive it further away? If Westminster looks like legislating, Stormont looks more redundant than ever. Sinn Fein withdrew from Stormont proclaiming that an alleged denial of human rights was being impeded by the Assembly. Would Stormont’s return now be the way to win them? Or will Sinn decide to avoid the risk of rejection in a vote in Stormont and prefer Westminster, where they do not themselves vote in principle , to take the decision for them ? Michelle O’Neill ducked the question on ITV’s Peston programme this morning. If however they are sincere in their preference for keeping the decision at home, they will approach the DUP with the proposal to return to Stormont conditional on an unimpeded vote in Stormont. That could unlock the whole negotiation, while retaining an implied threat to withdraw again.
What of the DUP? From their recent statements, they’ll be in a quandary. Arlene Foster claims unionists are as interested in human rights as nationalists, but what rights does she have in mind? As the champion of the return of Stormont, the DUP will surely find the demands for a vote on abortion and same sex marriage impossible to resist. But although opinion may be shifting within parties and even if no petition of concern was moved, there appears not be a majority of 50% plus one in favour of abortion reform and certainly not with a cross community majority.
The juncture we’ve reached for some time is that the cross community political system is failing to deliver reforms much wanted across the community. The parties seem incapable of breaking out of their sectarian trap and the people incapable of voting them out. Indeed the trap has tightened.
Local referendums may be part of a solution but introducing them for social issues where there is widespread agreement would inevitably boost demands for a border poll which still seems fundamentally divisive.
The need for the DUP and unionism generally to reimagine themselves grows ever more urgent . If Catholic acceptance of the Union is highly contingent on the Brexit outcome, just think of what the continual denial of abortion reform will do. And lots of Prods would join them.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London