Forget Corbyn-mania at Glastonbury or Boris Johnson back on leadership manoeuvres, the one outcome of the UK’s June election which, I’m confident, no-one could have predicted was that within a month access to abortion for women in Northern Ireland – where laws are amongst the most restrictive in Europe – would have become very slightly easier. That welcome, if small, change was itself a reaction to the sudden political importance of the Democratic Unionist Party (the DUP) – an organisation rooted in fundamentalist Protestantism and with the attendant anti-abortion stance. However, whilst it’s been good to see scrutiny of the DUP’s religiously inspired policies – along with a fair amount of ridicule – it would be better still if this were now extended to their main opponents in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, whose left-populism disguises its own regressive position on abortion and its symmetrical inspiration in Catholic doctrine.
Outside Northern Ireland, the DUP’s existence had previously barely registered, though its late founder, the Reverend Ian Paisley, remains the archetype of a Bible-thumping preacher-politician of a kind unknown on the British mainland. However, with her majority gone Theresa May decided to court the party’s 10 MPs. By chance, at that same moment, the UK’s supreme court ruled in a case which had Northern Irish women’s access to abortion at its heart. Longstanding UK Government policy had said that, whilst a woman can travel to the mainland for a termination, to avoid Northern Ireland’s draconian restrictions, the operation would not be free under the National Health Service, as it would be for any other British woman. The Court judged this policy legal, but thus publicly placed responsibility for it back with the Government just as May was cosying up to some of Northern Ireland’s unyielding anti-abortionists. Sensing an opportunity to make progress (and no doubt with the potential to embarrass the Government in mind) the effective Labour MP Stella Creasy put together a cross-party coalition behind an amendment reversing the policy on payment. With defeat inevitable, the Government caved-in.
Seven of Northern Ireland’s remaining eight Westminster seats are now held by Sinn Féin. Once the political wing of the IRA, dedicated to reunifying Ireland through terrorist violence, the party is now committed to the peace process and keen to reinvent itself as a progressive force, though still associated with the interests and values of Northern Ireland’s Catholic community. Reflecting this, its historical position has been one of assertive opposition to abortion, providing an area of common ground with its Protestant, unionist antagonists. In 2008 the party, led then as it is now by Gerry Adams, made common cause with the DUP to support a motion opposing any extension to the grounds for legal termination in Northern Ireland, notably to victims of rape or incest. Abortion remains restricted to cases of serious and long-term danger to a woman’s mental or physical health.
In the last five years Sinn Féin has taken some small and unsteady steps away from an absolutist position. In 2013 it supported the successful ‘Protection of Life during Pregnancy’ Bill in the Parliament of the Irish Republic (in line with its fundamental goal of Irish unity Sinn Féin operates in both Northern Ireland and the Republic). Mirroring the position in the North, this allows for abortions where there is a danger to a woman’s life, including through suicide, and reflected popular sympathy for the fourteen year old rape victim involved in the so-called X Case. However, Adams also took this debate as an opportunity to restate, in terms, that ‘Sinn Féin is not a pro-abortion party’. In 2015 the party’s conference, the Ard Fheis, carried a further motion supporting abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality – in other words when a baby is expected to die during pregnancy or immediately after birth. Again, this followed a specific case which had aroused substantial public concern, this time for Sarah Ewart, a woman from the North who was forced to go to England for an abortion when her baby had no chance of survival. The 2015 amendment to party policy was steered through by Sinn Féin’s ruling executive. However, the same conference also saw a motion from the floor proposing a position of genuine choice for women, and with the implication that Sinn Fein’s elected members would support or even introduce liberalising legislation. Without support from the executive this fell.
Even this finessing of policy, however, led to noisy external opposition from the Catholic pro-life movement and some internal critics. The 2015 Ard Fheis was picketed by anti-abortion demonstrators, while one Sinn Féin member of the Irish Parliament was suspended when he voted against the 2013 legislation. In October last year, a longstanding Sinn Féin councillor in the North, Anne Brolly, stood down saying that with “regard to abortion… I can’t compromise on principle”. Such sound and fury, however, has obscured quite how marginal the change to Sinn Féin’s core position has been. When the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, shoved his mitre into the debate on terminations in the context of fatal foetal abnormality – saying that a politician offering any support for abortion would not be “in communion with the church” – Sinn Féin’s leaders were, absurdly, able to present themselves as supporting the right of women to ‘make their own choice’ and presented as pro-choice by at least one English Catholic commentator. In reality the party’s position has solely been about defining narrow exemptions in a context (in both Northern Ireland and the Republic) where abortion remains illegal. It continues to oppose the extension to Northern Ireland of rights available to women in the mainland Britain for half a century.
This is not to deny that the moves that have been made show some promise. At the highest level arguments against abortion take two forms:
- There are religiously based positions which see the moment of conception as sacred, creating an entity which is inviolable because endowed with a soul by God and, in some way, reflecting his image.
- On the other hand there are a range of secular arguments centring on issues such as the capacity to live outside the womb, the ability to experience sensations including pain, and the current moral worth of a future life.
The latter are the terrain of debate (and possibly compromise) in a way that the former aren’t; and in accepting the relevance of, for example, fatal foetal abnormality, Sinn Féin seems to have moved on to this terrain and away from the clutches of the church – hence the archbishops’ bizarre hints of excommunication.
However the whole question of abortion brings home the extent to which Sinn Féin’s project rests on a contradiction between its self-presentation as a fresh, progressive party – in particular to voters in the Republic – while simultaneously maintaining its traditional stance as the defender of Catholic interests (and values) in the North. The desire to retain symbolic alignment with the Church led to farce in 2014 when senior party members issued a public letter stating that Sinn Féin, though not ‘pro-choice’, supported the existing legal right of a woman to a termination where pregnancy put her life in danger. Their mistake was to claim sacramental cover by attributing the same position to the Catholic Bishop of Dromore. After a thunderous response from the Bishop the letter was withdrawn with apologies.
More fundamentally, the party’s approach to the issue also exposes Sinn Féin as an organisation which remains outside democratic norms (a point which could also be made about the DUP, given its historical links to paramilitaries). Whilst other parties might work through their difficulties in public debate and policy review, or avoid them by simply declaring abortion to be ‘a matter of conscience’ for elected representatives, Sinn Féin continues with the Leninist style of party discipline that it honed as the political wing of a terrorist organisation during the troubles. Such open debate or plurality is anathema.
It’s hard to imagine an easier target for progressive outrage than the DUP, and Theresa May’s hasty parliamentary deal makes this a good time to let it fly. The neat tactical victory achieved by Stella Creasy was satisfying, offering something real to women in Northern Ireland and with the side benefit of highlighting the distance between May’s new friends and mainstream British opinion. Nonetheless it would be too easy to let things rest at this point. The DUP are not the only Northern Irish party to have a regressive stance on abortion rooted in a nasty history. This is also an opportunity to shine a light on Sinn Féin.