One of the first things I became involved in through the Belfast Feminist Network was a short play about abortion. It attempted to tell the stories of women’s experiences accessing abortions from Northern Ireland. At the time, around 2011, it was novel. We weren’t even telling real stories, per se, but writing them based on conversations with real women. We performed it a couple of times, and then the artistic conversations moved on to telling real women’s actual stories – and we have seen time and again the impact this has had on changing hearts and minds on abortion across this island.
Unique to our piece was the ending. We re-enacted, lightly edited, the most recent (at that time) Northern Ireland Assembly debate on abortion. And what was striking about that was not the usual anti-choice fervour – even headier seven years ago – but that every – overwhelmingly male – voice sounded exactly the same. There was no difference between a nationalist politician’s and a unionist politician’s disdain for women’s rights. We didn’t assign ourselves characters, we merely put men’s ties over our costumes and rotated lines in turn. It didn’t matter who was performing who because they all said the same things. They all drowned out the lone women in the debate (thank you, Anna Lo).
Listening to the Northern Irish MPs’ contributions to the emergency debate about Northern Ireland’s abortion laws in Westminster on Tuesday, was like an extended flashback to that performance. Only this time the characters were in on the act, breaking the proverbial fourth wall. They were becoming the nameless caricatures they appeared to be in our little play – left indistinguishable from right, orange blending into green. I’ve lived in Northern Ireland for almost a decade, and never have I heard DUP politicians speak so fondly of their nationalist peers than when discussing disenfranchising women. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson spoke rapturously about former SDLP MP Mark Durkan and Sinn Féin’s Francie Brolly, a former MLA, and their “eloquent” defences of the pro-life position. Sinn Féin will of course point to recent changes in its party policy regarding abortion, but this change was long overdue and it is interesting to note the party does not include abortion as one of its ‘red-lines’ for re-booting the Assembly: reproductive rights don’t seem to resonate on the same scale as equal marriage and the Irish language, it seems.
In the lead-up to the debate, BBC Talkback invited in its favourite anti-choice proponent, former SDLP MLA Alban Maginnis, who was keen to reaffirm his party’s anti-choice stance, despite the special party conference in May voting to allow votes on the basis of conscience on the abortion issue. He then presented listeners with a strange new bit of nationalism: a ‘moral’ border in a potential United Ireland, which would see Northern Ireland continue to vilify and criminalise women seeking reproductive healthcare, while the Republic continues on its journey to mend its broken relationship with women. What, I wonder, do nationalists make of this one?
Old alliances, it seems, are crumbling and fading in this new world. Whether it’s young northern Protestants enthusiastically canvassing for Repeal in the south, or discussions around a new, progressive, possibly all-island identity and citizenship for Northern Irish people post-Brexit, it would seem difficult to say that society here continues to revolve simply around orange and green.
But the alliance around conservative morality is sadly not new. Long before the first MLA mooed at the Women’s Coalition representatives in the Assembly, men on the left and right have banded together in their hour of need to oppress the women of this island, north and south. I find myself, shockingly, agreeing with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who said during the debate that,
“The idea therefore that the only party in Northern Ireland that is pro-life and holds this view is the DUP is a nonsense that betrays an ignorance of the political situation in Northern Ireland and of the views of political parties that I encourage Members to acquaint themselves with more closely.”
He’s right. We must stop thinking of human rights in general and reproductive rights in particular as orange and green issues. This is usually done in regard to who supports human rights generally – unionists being painted as not, while nationalists are firmly in favour. But we know now that this really only applies to certain rights, and it is unfair to unionists who staunchly support human rights – including a woman’s right to choose – and unduly lenient to nationalists (or anyone else) who purport to uphold human rights while continuing to disregard the rights of people who may become pregnant. We know that support for reproductive rights crosses the aisle, as does the desire to suppress them.
Researcher, youth worker, human rights-er.