Do Labour MP Stella Creasy and friends have the knowledge and stamina to progress abortion reform against the odds?

You thought it had gone quiet? Not if Stella Creasy can help it.  Repealing the nineteenth century Act which ultimately banned abortion and is still on the statute book, would be a route to broadening the scope of abortion regulations in Northern Ireland. So claims Ms Creasy the Labour MP who is championing the cause at Westminster. She has set out her stall not only in the Times but the Guardian.

The repeal of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act would be in an amendment to Westminster’s Domestic Violence Bill.Her tactics are designed to circumvent Theresa May’s flat refusal to legislate directly for NI abortion reform at Westminster, overruling the prerogatives of the suspended Assembly.  She seems undaunted by fears that the Speaker would reject it on procedural grounds.

The lack of Assembly cannot excuse a lack of action. Not only does parliament retain sovereignty over devolved assemblies, it has previously intervened in transferred matters including introducing legislation regarding rates and budgetary provision.

Most recently the secretary of state agreed to use the “power of Westminster” to introduce a free vote on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland – and then refused requests to do the same for abortion rights.

But what happened to Conor McGinn’s Bill on same sex marriage that Stella and others so enthusiastically supported? It fell at the second hurdle last Friday fortnight ago in the graveyard slot for private member’s Bills. A Conservative MP got to his feet and cried”Object!” And that was that. Everybody knew that it was going to happen. Gesture politics.

Can Ms Creasy and co make better luck for their cause this time?

Applying devolution and equality selectively reflects how it is politics – and the coalition’s need to prop up the DUP – not principle driving these decisions. Ultimately Northern Irish women are paying the price.

Even if the Assembly were functioning, the secretary of state also has the power to direct Northern Ireland departments to take such action as may be required under international obligations. The United Nations has made clear that this situation contravenes the UK government’s human rights commitments; it calls it “cruel, inhumane and degrading” because women are forced to travel overseas or seek unsafe procedures if they need a termination.

Has she really?

This ruling further reflects what this weekend’s result in Ireland showed – politicians have for too long been behind, not ahead, of their public on women’s rights. Ireland needed to have a referendum to make progress; its constitution legally prevents abortion.

Yet a solution for Northern Irish women can be achieved much more quickly if the UK is prepared to listen to its citizens.

British abortion law consists primarily of one 150-year old piece of legislation – the Offences Against the Person Act makes it a crime for any woman, pregnant or not, to take any medication or use any instrument to cause her own abortion. The Criminal Law Act of 1967 didn’t change this, but gave exemptions in England and Wales which are not permitted in Northern Ireland.

Repealing this legislation across the UK would not impose abortion law on Northern Ireland. It would, however, allow civil servants and indeed the Assembly if reconstituted to set out a framework for a modern healthcare system.

An authoritative judgement on her case is one for the lawyers. But it seems doubtful to me. It has been argued  that the 2016 guidelines issued following a High Court order could be extended in the absence of legislation. But could any “guidance” ever be sufficiently wide ranging and specific as to extend the right to an abortion beyond the existing  grounds of  the health of the women? The  Department of Health’s reaction to the  Republic’s referendum is  inevitably cautious.

 Department chiefs insisted that any reform of the north’s strict abortion laws will be “for ministers to consider”

What Ms Creasy and other MPs are really calling for here is further abortion reform for the whole UK, as she makes clear in the Guardian

The forthcoming domestic violence bill is due to consider the Victorian Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalises women in this way. Repealing it would lay the foundation for a modern medical approach to abortion across the UK, including in Northern Ireland, which could put women’s safety at the heart of future legislation.

Devolution cannot be used as cover to deny women their fundamental healthcare needs – at present the only Northern Irish woman making choices about abortion is the DUP leader, Arlene Foster. Her party continues to refuse to entertain any reform and is using its position propping up Theresa May’s administration to prevent change. For the sake of the million women affected, it’s time we gave a voice to the rest of Northern Irish society.

But would not reform for the whole UK only complicate reform in Northern Ireland alone where the law is different? And there’s no sign that a big enough head of steam has built up for the government, or parliament as a whole, to take on something so ambitious.

Why hasn’t Ms Creasy referred to the impending judgment in the Supreme Court on extending the grounds for abortion from the health of the woman to foetal abnormality and cases of rape and incest?  That is NI specific. It would surely give clearer definition to her case – unless her real motive is to exploit the Northern Ireland anomaly for broader GB purposes.

Fionnuala O’Connor doubts that the Westminster route will lead anywhere.

Westminster with a flick of the wrist provided abortions for northern women on the NHS; the DUP stayed schtum. Can a similar manoeuvre provide law reform here, while Arlene and Nigel at least hold their tongues? It must be a low May priority in the devolution/no devolution/Brexit political soup, against the background of car-crash negotiations against the clock.  We lack the sense of society, and political architecture, to imitate the south. Rescue has to come from outside.

By lining up with the DUP to say no Sinn Féin gives London cover. Will the two governments duck responsibility in the name of a failed Stormont?

 Guardian columnist Dawn Foster opines on where she thinks DUP   strategy on Brexit and abortion will lead – to a United Ireland. But we are not at that point yet.  The politics of Brexit and abortion  have raised Northern Ireland’s profile in UK affairs to its highest since the GFA – and in utterly different subjects from the Troubles. Could it mean as Dawn suggests that the temptation to slough us off is becoming overwhelming? Or might they warm to problems that they can more easily identify with as never before ?

The one point in particular that should alarm senior Conservatives and Unionists massively: on the question of reunification with Ireland, Catholics are largely ambivalent. But were Brexit to deliver a hard border, removing Northern Ireland from the EU customs union and single market, Catholic support for reunification rises from 42% to 58%. The DUP has maintained that it will not accept Northern Ireland being treated as a special case, which means it will not accept a “soft” Brexit that would keep the north remaining in the single market and customs union as the rest of the UK leaves. But this is precisely the fudge the majority of Northern Irish people want and, given the DUP’s position, is the issue that could swing public opinion towards political reunification with the Republic.

For the Conservatives, confronting the DUP over gay marriage and abortion rights will be a dress rehearsal for the battle to come. Like a drunk at a party, they eventually have to be confronted and asked to leave – and they won’t be happy about it. One senior Sinn Féin politician told me recently that Arlene Foster and the current DUP stable were, unlike Peter Robinson and DUP founder Paisley, utterly opposed to bowing to any middle ground, as the ongoing Stormont shutdown shows.

But May will have to put her foot down on Brexit, to Foster and her own party. It’s either that, or accept that, while David Cameron will be remembered as the prime minister who took the United Kingdom out of Europe, thanks to her shonky and ill thought-out deal with the DUP, she is likely to be feted by Irish republicans as the British prime minister who handed back the six counties.

The New York Times has homed in..

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Tyler McNally was surprised when he answered a knock on the door of his Belfast house one evening to find two police officers standing there, and shocked when they presented a warrant to search the premises. They had reason to believe, Mr. McNally was told, that he had ordered abortion pills online for “a vulnerable woman.”

The case was eventually dropped for lack of evidence. But Mr. McNally said in an interview that there was no mistaking the intimidating nature of the raid, and wondered if that wasn’t the point of it all.

“Having two police officers sit in my living room and tell me that I may face life imprisonment only to then toy with the idea of bringing me in for questioning in cuffs or just invite me in to ‘try and get me to talk’ was quite a harrowing experience,” he said, “and I’m not someone depending on access to abortion services.”

While Sinn Fein said after Friday’s vote in Ireland that the campaign for liberalized abortion laws would spread to the north, traditionally all political parties in Northern Ireland have been against allowing abortion, said Eleanor Crossey Malone, an organizer of ROSA, an abortion rights group.

“The main reason we’re behind — and we don’t have marriage equality either — is because of our sectarian past and because we still live in a deeply divided society,” she said. “People still vote on sectarian lines rather than on social issues, because they want to keep the other side out. The sectarian situation allows this issue to be swept under the rug.”

Because of that, she said, “there is a sense that change is not possible here — it all comes down to the sectarian stalemate. But young people are getting impatient over the lack of political will

More problems for  the referendum case

In the June 2016 British referendum that narrowly approved withdrawal from the European Union, Scottish voters favored remaining in the bloc. If a referendum were held permitting voters in Northern Ireland to choose their own destiny on abortion, some pro-European Scots might argue, why should Scotland be denied a voice on Europe?

And Britons who oppose Brexit would feel emboldened in strengthening their calls for a second referendum on the future relationship with Europe.

There are still formidable forces lined up against abortion rights in Northern Ireland, where nearly 90 percent of the population self-identified as Christian in the 2011 census and where church groups retain considerable political influence.

 

 

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