- Created: Sunday, 28 July 2019 14:34
- Written by Patrick Casey
On 9 July British MPs approved yet another fast-tracked emergency bill to postpone a misnamed and pointless legal ‘deadline’ for rerunning elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, which has been dormant since March 2017. With it they also passed, with large majorities, two Labour amendments to extend British law on same sex marriage and abortion to the Six Counties. This will come into effect by January 2020 if Stormont has not been restored before 21 October this year. PATRICK CASEY reports.
Either the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) did not bother the government to whip its MPs to vote down the amendments – on the grounds that they are ‘devolved issues’ – or they did and were simply ignored. Whichever, Conservative MPs enjoyed a free vote, nearly a third of them backing the amendments and more than a third not voting. As the amendments are to be realised by secondary legislation, immune to further Westminster votes, DUP MPs are powerless to stop this tide coming in.
In one respect British MPs have done the DUP a favour. The question of same sex marriage and abortion are longstanding policy irritants for them. Neither are crucial issues for the majority of unionists, many of whom are in favour of legalising both. The trouble is with that sizeable and loud minority of evangelicals in amongst them. They have been prepared to kick up a fuss as the DUP edges towards a softer position on gay rights, most notably by running its first openly gay candidate in recent local elections. At least this way the DUP do not even have to bow to the inevitable; rather they can pose, firm footed and fists raised, as the inevitable simply passes around them. Civil partnerships were similarly introduced to the Six Counties in 2005 during the previous period of direct rule.
As for a new abortion law, not only is this more controversial but the proposed route to reform is far more ambiguous. The relevant amendment requires Britain’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure compliance with recommendations made in a 2018 report to the United Nation’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Alongside several recommendations regarding the provision of sexual education and reproductive health services, it proposes three alterations to the legal framework in the Six Counties. Firstly, it advises a partial repeal of the punitive legislation that effectively outlaws abortion in the Six Counties, falsely implying that such changes would represent a total decriminalisation of abortion. But then it goes on to suggest that replacement legislation could minimally provide for legal abortion in the following cases: rape, incest, severe foetal impairment and where there is a threat to the health of the mother. That is to say, a highly restrictive abortion law would still be compliant with the report’s recommendations. Although, lastly, it proposes the suspension of all criminal investigations and prosecutions concerning abortion in the Six Counties, this is only put forward as ‘an interim measure’ – so, the arrests can begin again just as soon as a new legal framework is in place.
It's a political recipe for legal fudge: a highly progressive abortion law would be compliant with the report’s recommendations; a highly restrictive abortion law would be compliant with the report’s recommendations; anything in between would be compliant with the report’s recommendations.
Of course, none of this applies should Stormont be back up and running by 21 October. If that deadline – for want of a better word – was unrealistic before the Westminster vote, it is near impossible now. For two years, marriage equality and access to abortion have featured, on-and-off and to varying degrees, on Sinn Fein’s ‘equality agenda’ – its list of demands for re-entering a power-sharing arrangement with the DUP. Reviving Stormont now would mean handing the unionists a veto on both. Sinn Fein knows that it has tried its supporters’ patience on these issues already. Last year it proved willing to agree a deal with the DUP that said nothing on either issue; that deal only collapsed because the DUP pulled the plug. Then, in the local election this spring, Sinn Fein faced a limited challenge from Aontú – a recent anti-abortion breakaway from the party – and responded by dropping all mention of reproductive rights from its campaign literature. The return to Stormont, it seems, will have to wait a while longer.
In the referenda held in the Twenty-Six Counties in 2015 and 2018, large majorities voted to legalise same-sex marriage and decriminalise abortion. Various opinion polls indicate that a majority in the Six Counties are in favour of the same on both counts. British imperialism’s partition of Ireland, its division of the Irish working class, its crude conjuring-up of a convenient ‘consenting majority’, has handed undue influence to the most backward elements in Irish politics. This ‘democratic deficit’ is not one that will be resolved by laws passed at Westminster, nor by the revival of Stormont.