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Northern Ireland’s abortion law change is a travesty for devolution

21 October 2019

5:48 PM

21 October 2019

5:48 PM

Short of a miracle, abortion will become legal in Northern Ireland tomorrow. It’s a result of a shabby legislative deal back in July, when English parliamentarians amended the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) bill, to override the entire principle of devolution.

In other words, the abortion laws of the north of Ireland will be annulled at the say-so of the Westminster parliament and – without a single vote in its assembly or any consultation with its people – brought into line with the rest of the UK, only slightly more liberal.

There has been less crowing about this from the egregious Stella Creasy, the chief mover behind the change, than we might have expected simply because the urgent, immediate problem of Brexit has understandably crowded out every other issue from the broadcast schedule. But I expect the BBC and other broadcasters will find space to make clear that this is the merest bit of overdue legislative housekeeping to bring the law in Northern Ireland into line with that of the rest of the UK. On this subject, the lack of balance in the coverage, notwithstanding the profoundly divisive and momentous nature of the change, has been dispiriting if unsurprising. I’ve just listened to an interview about the change on the Radio 4 PM programme with a journalist from the pro-choice side, where there wasn’t even an attempt at balance, or any challenge to the assertion that only 18 per cent of people support abortion being a criminal offence.

It probably doesn’t help that the most intransigent bloc against the overriding of Northern Ireland autonomy on this issue has been the DUP, and it’s hard for most pundits in Britain to talk about them without a sneer somewhere in their inflexion. Sinn Fein, whose constituency was once essentially Catholic, and who you’d expect to be on their high horse about the imposition of direct rule from Westminster, has apparently been absolutely fine about this undermining of the principle of devolution. In 2018, one of the only TDs (Irish MPs) among Sinn Fein’s parliamentarians who took issue with the party line on abortion during the referendum in the Republic (not wholly surprisingly, the party doesn’t really do dissent), one Peadar Toibin, was obliged to leave the party and set up a tiny pro-life party of his own, called Aontu.

In fact, the Northern Ireland Assembly has reconvened today to thwart the move. After 31 MLAs (its members) signed a petition to recall the assembly, it sat at noon, with the Unionist MLA benches full and the nationalist ones almost empty. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, was understandably bitter about the whole thing. ‘It’s a sad day’, she said. ‘There will be people who will be celebrating but it’s not a cause for celebration for the unborn.’

The Alliance Party’s leader, Naomi Long, the kind of politician who makes Jo Swinson look deep, said its MLAs wouldn’t go because it’s no way to resolve a complex issue. Neither, you might think, is changing the law by direct rule from Westminster.

But in the end the sitting was hopeless, as the Assembly can’t do anything without electing a Speaker with cross-community support. I suppose the Unionists could, in an imaginative gesture, have elected a Republican to the role, but it still wouldn’t have the formal approval of the formerly Catholic nationalist and republican parties.

There needs to be a power sharing executive to get things done. And so, the sensibilities of the people of Northern Ireland, the moral principle that a foetus has rights and the basic principle of devolution will all be swept aside in the forward march of progress, directed from Westminster. It’s simultaneously repugnant, high handed and authoritarian in a distinctive and characteristically liberal way.

PS One of the cheerleaders of the move to impose abortion on Northern Ireland has been Amnesty International, for whom the concept of human rights does not, it seems, include prenatal human rights. The foetus, for them, simply doesn’t count for anything unless the mother happens to want it. Anyone who cares about these things shouldn’t donate to Amnesty, or touch them with a bargepole.


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