Ireland’s abortion referendum ramps up pressure on Westminster to supersede Stormont

Amnesty International will host a delegation of politicians from the UK’s main opposition party, Labour in Belfast to discuss the issue

A picture shows a view of the Parliament Buildings on the Stormont Estate, the seat of the Northern Ireland assembly, in Belfast, on January 24, 2018.

Northern Ireland's quibbling political parties gathered in Belfast on January 24 for one last shot at forming a power-sharing government after a year of fruitless wrangling. / AFP PHOTO / Paul FAITH
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The Irish government’s decision to hold a referendum on whether to repeal its near-ban on abortion is ramping up pressure on Northern Ireland to change its own restrictive laws.

Irish women on both sides of the border can only access abortion if their life is in danger, which has resulted in thousands travelling to Britain every year to terminate a pregnancy.

However, last month the Republic of Ireland announced it would hold a referendum on whether to keep or scrap the controversial eighth amendment to its constitution, which equates the life of an unborn foetus to that of its mother.

The referendum south of the border has led to increased calls for reform in Northern Ireland, which was exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act that legalised abortion in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Amnesty International, which has campaigned for legalisation of abortion on the island of Ireland, host a delegation of Labour Party politicians from the UK's main opposition party in Belfast to discuss the issue.

"In our 2017 manifesto, the Labour Party committed to working with the Northern Ireland Assembly to strengthen women’s rights to choose a safe abortion. That is why today we are in Northern Ireland meeting with Amnesty, FPA, MLAs, legal and healthcare professionals, civil society representatives and most importantly women affected by the current law in Northern Ireland,” said Labour’s Owen Smith, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, ahead of the meeting.

Complicating matters somewhat is the political impasse at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Since a power-sharing agreement, which devolved powers to Stormont, broke down over 12 months ago, Northern Ireland has not had a functioning administration.

Direct rule from Westminster has been threatened if a deal is not reached between opposing parties Sinn Féin, an Irish nationalist party, and the Democratic Union Party, who are pro-British unionists. This is something British Prime Minister Theresa May is keen to avoid for fear of reigniting tensions in the region.


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However, the impasse could provide an opportunity for legislators in London to make a decision on the abortion issue, a devolved matter which has consistently been sidestepped by politicians in Belfast.

“We believe that this is a decision that should be made in Stormont by a returned Stormont Assembly and Executive, and we will continue to do all we can to see the return of devolution,” Mr Smith said.

“However, if power returns to Westminster, we will push the government to make progress on ensuring people in Northern Ireland have the same rights as those elsewhere in the United Kingdom."

The abortion issue in Northern Ireland was brought into the political foreground in Britain following the result of last year’s general election, which left a minority Conservative government dependent on support from the DUP, a staunchly anti-abortion party which most British voters previously knew very little about.

The election has put Northern Ireland’s regressive abortion laws under the microscope in the rest of the UK, where terminations have been legal for five decades since the election.

Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland Leo Varadkar speaks at a news conference announcing that the Irish Government will hold a referendum on liberalising abortion laws at the end of May, in Dublin, Ireland, January 29, 2018. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland Campaigns Manager for Amnesty, told The National the charity would be directing its Northern Ireland campaign in the run-up to the referendum in the Republic of Ireland at lawmakers at Westminster.

“We’re working at Westminster at the minute, there’s definitely a heightened awareness there on this issue and other human rights issues as well,” she said.

“Women aren’t being helped by the political limbo in Northern Ireland at the minute. We don’t have devolved government and haven’t had that for over a year.

“Westminster have been shirking their responsibilities on this because their answer has been that health and justice are devolved matters. But devolution is no justification for the denial of women’s rights.”

Attending Thursday’s meeting with Labour politicians will be Belfast mother Sarah Ewart, whose first pregnancy was given a fatal foetal diagnosis leading her to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy.

"With no functioning government in Northern Ireland, it is important that MPs understand the unfair situation that women like me find ourselves in," she told The National.

“We are treated like second-class citizens in this part of the UK. I have been waiting a long time for change and hope my calls for Westminster to take action will be heard.”

Polls in the Republic of Ireland suggest most voters want some kind of reform on abortion laws. Ireland Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said he will campaign on repealing the eighth amendment and allowing abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy and in the case of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities.

Pro-life organisations in Northern Ireland are preparing to campaign against repealing the eighth amendment because of the pressure it will place on politicians in Belfast.

"It certainly is a great concern for us," Bernadette Smyth, spokesperson from anti-abortion group Precious Life told The National. "If you legalised abortion in Ireland, even though it won't change the law in the North because that can only be changed through the Stormont government, it would cause pressure on Stormont itself to change and follow suit."

If abortion laws are relaxed in the Republic of Ireland, it could also open up the possibility of women crossing the border to access terminations rather than travelling overseas to England and Wales.

It is not clear yet whether cross-border abortions would be permitted but Ms Teggart believes this outcome is “likely”.

“From Amnesty’s point of view, we want to get to a place where we don’t expect other regions and other countries to take care of Northern Irish citizens,” Ms Teggart said.

“In the event of the eighth amendment being repealed, and we fully expect that it will, it very much decreases the space for politicians to continue to sustain a situation of inequity for women in Northern Ireland.”