Political stalemates are to blame for the lack of abortion services in Northern Ireland

By Caitriona Marsh

It is no secret that Northern Ireland has a complex history, overflowing with conflict and controversy. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the characteristic violence of ‘The Troubles’ has dissipated. However, in recent years, calls for the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, and clashes over the commissioning of proper abortion services, have revealed the frustrating cost of acquiring peace.

Great Britain, as well as the predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland, took steps to legalise abortion and install services several years ago. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s government appears to be standing stubbornly in the path of progress on this front. In exchange for volatility and sectarian violence, residents have found themselves living in a perpetual political stalemate, with the legacy of one hundred years of tension bubbling dangerously below the surface.

Abortion is controversial by nature. However, regardless of personal beliefs, governments across Western Europe are increasingly recognising the legitimacy of the pro-choice argument. In the Northern Irish context, where politics and religion remain inextricably intertwined, abortion is one of the thorniest issues the devolved government faces.  

That being said, it is not the Catholic representatives at Stormont who are causing this impasse. The leading Republican party, Sinn Féin, appears to be in favour of loosening the religious reins in order to reflect and reinforce the views of 21st century society. Instead, it is members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), with whom Sinn Féin share power, who are blocking reform. Thus, it is, somewhat surprisingly, the Protestants as opposed to the Catholics in Northern Ireland politics who lead the opposition to abortion.

Northern Ireland now finds itself in a rather perplexing situation. The DUP, traditionally outraged by the idea of a border in the Irish Sea because it threatens the union, is fighting against changes to abortion services, despite the fact that this would align Northern Ireland and Great Britain more closely. This makes clear the immense importance religion continues to hold for the dogmatic members of the DUP.  

This impasse is somewhat explained by context. The legalisation of abortion was not decided by Northern Ireland’s devolved government, instead, it was threatened, and then implemented, by Westminster in an attempt to force Northern Ireland’s broken government back together. This makes the DUP’s continued efforts to block services, for something they never agreed to, perhaps inevitable – albeit highly frustrating.

It is reductionist to expect a country and its people to set aside their history with ease

The failure of the NI Department of Health to commission proper abortion services can also be attributed to the power-sharing system, born out of the Good Friday Agreement. It is easy to grumble at the inability of the Northern Irish Government to make decisions. However, the system in place, whereby parties with opposing political and religious affiliations share the running of a country, is immensely problematic. Just try to imagine the Conservative and Labour parties governing Westminster hand in hand.

Westminster has, once again, set the clock ticking on Stormont. A formal direction has been issued to the NI Department of Health to commission full abortion services by March 2022. For many women across Northern Ireland, this will come as a welcome development, allowing them to avoid the practical and emotional strain of travelling elsewhere to receive services. However, in the long term, this is a retrograde step. It does not tackle the root cause of the standstill and, as such, represents a thoughtless and paradoxical attempt to push for progress in Northern Ireland by the historically discredited method of direct rule from Westminster. 

It is reductionist to expect a country and its people to set aside their history with ease, especially one as contentious as that of Northern Ireland. The Partition of Ireland 100 years ago never represented a long-term, stable solution to widespread discontent across two opposing communities. Moreover, the UK’s political climate in recent years has made it glaringly obvious that tensions, which pre-date partition, as well as those born out of it, have never disappeared.

A modern and moderate politics may no longer be beyond reach

It is difficult to imagine how Northern Ireland can escape from its partly self-inflicted stalemate. It is, however, certain that short-term fixes and intervention from Westminster will not deliver Northern Ireland progress and unity in the long-term. Furthermore, in the tumultuous aftermath of Brexit, even acrimonious peace has the potential to be threatened. 

There is, however, a generation of young people in Northern Ireland, ready and willing to set their sights on the future rather than the past. Inherited associations, memories and trauma will, of course, continue to colour the lives of many. However, the British Government’s response to issues, such as the impasse on abortion services, risks ignoring this generation and denying its members a voice.

In terms of the delicate issue of abortion services, it may unfortunately be a case of biding time. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing mandate is in desperate need of more moderate parties. The wisest tactic, given Northern Ireland’s painful past, is perhaps to sit back and let demographic changes play out. With a Catholic majority imminent, and a generation of young people making a blended ‘Northern Irish’ identity appear achievable for the first time, a modern and moderate politics may no longer be beyond reach.

Image: will g via flickr.

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