Simple reform of the Petititon of Concern will facilitate movement on abortion in Northern Ireland

Regular readers of Slugger will know that I’m a firm resister of that favourite liberal reflex, so destructively pervasive in Northern Ireland, which is to blame the DUP for every little thing that goes wrong (including, most implausibly) the breakdown of Stormont.

Nor do I criticise politicians for standing up for their own conscience and moral convictions when it comes to something as complex and perplexing as abortion. The trite, hectoring tone in parts of the southern media for TDs in the Republic who did sits poorly with me.

But when it comes to democratic decisions, there is a way in which the power-sharing deal at Stormont is being used to thwart public debate, never mind impeding proper public decision making. Newton Emerson in today’s Sunday Times:

Northern Ireland now has a more restrictive abortion regime than most Muslim, African and Latin American countries, let alone within the British Isles — and the irony is that this conservative pushback has been enabled by the supposedly progressive mechanisms of the peace process.

The social changes being witnessed in the Republic are essentially generational, following the secularising and liberalising trend of western culture. The same changes can be seen in Northern Ireland in how people live and engage with each other, and in opinion polls, which show about three-quarters of the public support abortion reform and same-sex marriage.

However, all the Republic has to do is reach a simple majority on any issue for its democratic system to keep up. Northern Ireland, by contrast, needs two majorities — unionist and nationalist. That means a party such as the DUP, with just over a quarter of the vote, can block progress on any issue if it chooses not to moderate its position.

The DUP will remind us all that the Petition of Concern mechanism was not of their invention. This is true. Indeed, it was invented as a liberal/nationalist security blanket so unionism could not use its numerical strength to shoehorn stuff through the Assembly.

It is odd that in all the sterile bilateral negotiations between the DUP and SF no concrete proposals have emerged to deal with this universal brake on progress. It would deal with a logjam of democratically uncontroversial measures through the Assembly.

Uncontroversial because in regard to abortion alone there is clearly a long established appetite for change:

No one should expect DUP MLA’s to abandon their consciences. But their predominance in the preventing the public debate paints  Unionism in deeply illiberal colours that it does not deserve, and adds to what has already become a deeply unjust slander culture…

The irony is that all of this has come so quickly on NI’s party’s that few have policy positions ready to allow them to push onwards on abortion, including Sinn Fein (despite the ad hoc messaging) who are still officially against it in Northern Ireland.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty