Northern Ireland: 'Groping its way towards the modern era'
The opening of an abortion clinic in Belfast has shone a light on a different divide in the North, between conservatism and liberalism, a divide that stretches across sectarian lines even as social attitudes shift
THIS WEEK’S OPENING in Belfast of the Marie Stopes sexual- and reproductive-health clinic, which will offer early medical abortions to eligible clients, has sparked an intense and emotive debate in Northern Ireland. The most heated arguments have been between religiously motivated anti-abortion supporters – both Catholic and Protestant – and pro-choice campaigners, who largely speak from a secular, rights-based perspective. The bigger picture appears to show a chasm between traditional social conservatism and a new, progressive liberalism in the North, with unexpected alliances being formed beyond the old sectarian divisions.
The truth may be more complicated than that. Graham Walker, professor of political history at Queen’s University Belfast, says abortion has always brought together fundamentalist Protestants and right-wing Catholics in Northern Ireland. “When I first came to Belfast in the early 1980s, Ian Paisley was joining nuns in the picket outside the Brook [sexual-health] clinic in the city centre. It was a very tense time during the Troubles, but here you had Roman Catholics lining up with Paisley in an alliance of convenience. So it’s nothing new.”
Yet social attitudes have changed significantly, he says. “The recent debate over gay marriage in Northern Ireland is the best evidence for that. Even though the Stormont assembly rejected a proposal that same-sex couples should have the right to marry, no one could have predicted just how close the vote would be [almost 50 per cent of elected members declared their support for the motion]. That would never have happened in the past.”
But the DUP tabled a petition of concern, to ensure the motion would have to command a cross-community majority to succeed, and only three of the 45 assembly members who voted in favour of gay marriage were unionists. Does that suggest the wider unionist community is likely to take a tougher, more traditionalist line on such issues? Not necessarily, says Walker.
“There is a strong liberal constituency within unionism. Famously, they don’t come out to vote, or they may prefer to vote for more liberal politicians but end up going back into the tribal fold, perhaps to make sure that a Sinn Féin representative does not become First Minister, or other reasons like that. But they are out there.”
Genevieve Redmond (not her real name), who chairs a school board of governors, may be one of the people Walker is talking about. “I wouldn’t want to see abortion on demand, women using it like contraception, and being as promiscuous as they like,” she says. “That would be a retrograde step. We have to uphold certain moral standards. I do think that abortion is necessary in certain extreme situations, though. You are killing a baby, but that may be best for the mother, and possibly the baby, too, if it’s going to be born into some terrible situation.”