Let Northern Ireland have a say on abortion

The Northern Ireland bill raises difficult questions about the north’s relationship with the UK.

Ella Whelan

Pro-choice campaigners are celebrating this week after British MPs voted to bring Northern Ireland one step closer to liberalising its abortion laws. Labour MP Stella Creasy’s amendment to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Bill passed by a large majority of 332 to 99. It ensures that Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion will be lifted unless the Stormont assembly – Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament – is restored by 21 October.

spiked has long called for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. The UK’s 1967 Abortion Act only partially decriminalises abortion. Abortion should be fully decriminalised, once and for all, so that women can have full control over their bodies and life decisions.

But despite the understandable cheer about the prospect of increased rights for women and gay people in Northern Ireland (the amendment also included provisions to secure same-sex marriage), there is something wrong here. Just because MPs have voted in support of something positive – women’s freedom – doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question the means through which the victory was secured.

The anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has voiced concerns about the undermining of devolution. Many pro-choice commentators and MPs have lambasted the DUP, but it does have a point. You don’t have to be the biggest fan of Stormont to see that English MPs have decided to trample over the pre-agreed arrangements in Northern Irish politics. In her speech in parliament, Creasy even admitted that ‘none of us wanted the governance of Northern Ireland to be in this position today’. MPs often wax lyrical about their dedication to devolution. But when it comes to a tricky situation like this, when commitments are truly tested, it seems that many have ditched the idea of devolved power altogether.

Northern Irish politics is a mess. Negotiations to resume power-sharing in Stormont have been deadlocked for close to two-and-a-half years. It all started with a squabble over a green-energy bill. Now, Sinn Fein, on the one hand, won’t back down on its demands to make Irish an official language in the Six Counties. On the other hand, the DUP won’t give ground on abortion rights – despite the obvious desire for change within Ireland as a whole following last year’s referendum in the republic.

But let’s not forget that this dysfunctional, ridiculous power-sharing agreement is a product of British rule in Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, which is treated as gospel by ignorant British MPs, is said to be the sole guarantor of peace in Northern Ireland. In practice, it merely stifles political progress. Britain has instituted an untenable political arrangement, gifted to Northern Ireland under the pretence of devolution. But the recent passage of the amendment proves how easy it is to wade back into Belfast and strongarm Northern Irish politics from Westminster.

Creasy, Diana Johnson and many other committed pro-choice MPs are right to condemn Northern Ireland for leaving women without access to abortion for so long. Northern Irish women are being forced to live in the Dark Ages, denied access to abortion rights, even in extreme cases of rape and fatal fetal abnormality. They are treated like criminals if they dare to take pills that are perfectly safe and legal across the Irish Sea. They are denied the prospect of making decisions about when and with whom to have children.

Anyone who is pro-choice should cheer the passage of this pro-choice amendment. But we cannot duck the questions it raises about the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Not all of us are in favour of devolution – the power-sharing agreement at Stormont is neither democratic nor functional. Now that it has collapsed, Westminster has naturally stepped in to fill the vacuum. The problem with this is that in the debate about abortion rights in Northern Ireland, the one voice we haven’t heard from is that of the Northern Irish people.

So, let’s celebrate the growing support for women’s bodily autonomy. But let’s also think about how we can take these much-needed steps towards women’s freedom in the most democratic way possible.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Willie Penwright

18th July 2019 at 10:17 am

One solution would be to make Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom, after all, that’s what all those soldiers died for, enforcing – with prisons, camps and state repression – the will of the government in Westminster.

Francis Lonergan

14th July 2019 at 4:48 pm

Ella is on her hobbyhorse again. Why doe so called pro-choice advocate only ever pronounce on one choice, the choice to kill the most innocent vulnerable human being there can ever be? Their liberalism is measured in vast numbers of human beings killed at will for convenience. The grater the number the happier they are. There is a slight hypocrisy in Ella’s appeal to democracy when, as I believe she is a foreign national, who interfered in the Irish referendum on killing unborn humans.

Hana Jinks

14th July 2019 at 6:42 pm

Hmmm. The greater the number, the happier they are.

And they aren’t certifiable, apparently.

michael harris

12th July 2019 at 6:04 pm

A considerable unspoken contradiction exists these days. The rights of animals are to the fore and many have stopped eating meat and wearing fur.
The basis for these actions can only be that we should stop killing other creatures for our convenience.
Can this ethical choice sit alongside abortion on demand. The killing of a living creature for the convenience of its progenitor? Owner?

James Knight

14th July 2019 at 2:35 pm

Nobody is criminalised for wearing fur or eating meat. It is not a contradiction if you see both as matters of individual conscience.

Hana Jinks

14th July 2019 at 6:40 pm

Animals don’t actually have rights .

jamie murray

12th July 2019 at 11:06 am

Ella, as a previous poster commented it does not go unnoticed that advocates of abortion [killing a baby is more accurate,sorry if that truth offends some,i’m sure it hurts the baby more] use pro-choice for their own cause and anti-abortion for pro-life groups in order to denigrate the people who support the choice of babies to live. I find no pleasure in this debate,only heartbreak, and however much our post Christian age despises being reminded of this,the first commandment “thou shalt not kill” instituted by God still stands and an account will have to be given. I’m ready for the eating shellfish,wearing clothes of different fibre etc comments but the hatred that is thrown around regarding this issue i believe points to the reality that we are deep down aware that life is not ours to play with and that we know we have a creator

James Knight

11th July 2019 at 6:46 pm

NI leaders are hypocritical if they want to pick and choose which parts of UK law they will follow.

Still, why now? Why not 20 years ago? It is a hugely sensitive issue and an issue of conscience. That is why Eire had a referendum. This was not a “clever” bill it was bad faith and opportunistic stitch up by Westminster MPs. It looks to me like they are treating NI like, well, a colony. Imagine if the situation were reversed and the UK government were foisting a ban on abortion in NI.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to comment. Log in or Register now.