If film studios boycott Georgia over abortion, why not the North?

Donald Clarke: Women in Northern Ireland could conclude industry cares less for them

The campaign for reproductive rights in Northern Ireland is confronted with an awkward dilemma. In recent weeks, there have been calls for studios to halt production in Georgia as that US state pursues a ban on abortion. But what about the North? The entertainment industry has, to this point, had little to say about even greater (and more ancient) restrictions on terminations in that jurisdiction.

Speaking about suggestions that Disney and Netflix might suspend production in Georgia, Emma Campbell, co-chair of Alliance for Choice, a Northern Irish campaign group, stated the case in bald terms. "It shouldn't be one rule for Georgia and one rule for Northern Ireland," she said. There have always been conflicting arguments about the efficacy of boycotts, but there seems no meaningful distinction between the situations in Georgia and the North. Argue for a boycott in one and you must surely argue for a boycott in the other.

The conflict came to an embarrassing turn at a press junket for X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Sophie Turner and Jessica Chastain, stars of the film, told a journalist that they had both signed a document saying they would no longer work in Georgia. The interviewer pointed out that Turner had shot sections of Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland. "There was a lot of work on Game of Thrones there," she said with a dismissive wave of the hand. "But luckily we're moving on."

Not an issue

What to make of this? Beginning as a child (to be fair), Turner has spent much of the last eight years shooting that hit series in the North. Yet the laws on abortion there were not an issue for her until, months after production ended, certain US states – Alabama is also making moves – proposed alterations in their own legislation. Now she is happy to be "moving on". It is only five years since Jessica Chastain shot Miss Julie in Fermanagh. Women in Northern Ireland could be forgiven for concluding the industry cares less for them than their American sisters.

Over 100 prominent Hollywood professionals have signed a letter warning Georgia that they will not work there if the proposed bill becomes law. They include Brie Larson, Alec Baldwin, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. There are dissenters, but the campaign is unquestionably popular among the industry's liberal opinion formers.

There has, to this point, been little support within Northern Ireland for a similar boycott. Northern Ireland Screen, which promotes film and television production in the region, has announced that it would not welcome such a campaign (nor will the turkeys of mid-Ulster be voting for Christmas). Neither Netflix nor Disney has passed comment.

No overseas actor, director or studio said a word about a Northern Irish boycott until the situation changed in Dixie

Were Channel 4 to have observed such a boycott, Derry Girls, the hugely popular sitcom, would surely not exist in its current form. A version shot in Birmingham or Newcastle hardly bears consideration. Lisa McGee, creator of the show, acknowledged that the laws were "horrific", but argued that a boycott would be counterproductive. "In a country where there is already little opportunity for young people it would only deprive them further," she said. Fair enough. That works as an argument against boycotts in both Northern Ireland and Georgia (McGee did not comment on the latter). Nicola Coughlan, star of the show, "seconded" McGee's tweet, but also described the Georgia campaign as "a worthy protest".

There are no signs of movie professionals explicitly supporting a boycott of Georgia and Alabama while opposing such campaigns in Northern Ireland. There remains, nonetheless, a peculiar inconsistency here. No overseas actor, director or studio said a word about a Northern Irish boycott until the situation changed in Dixie (and precious few have said anything since). Kellie O’Dowd, Campbell’s fellow chair in Alliance for Choice, told the New York Times: “Why does it take something to happen in Alabama before people notice what is happening in Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom?”

US social media

The answer is partly that US social media drives too much social discourse. If you're not annoying the burghers of Portland then you don't matter. We are all guilty of insularity. In the current debate, few have noted that the laws on abortion in Malta, where warmer bits of Game of Thrones were shot, are at least as restrictive as those in the North.

The reluctance to urge a boycott within Northern Ireland – where TV series such as Line of Duty have also prospered – springs from an understandable desire to protect an industry that is still waking up after the Troubles. Like so much else in those counties, this is a peace and reconciliation issue. The moral arguments are the same in Atlanta and Armagh – women in both cities deserve their reproductive rights – but only a harsh judge would casually dismiss the economic and political consequences of such a boycott.

None of which gets us very far. Northern Ireland has long been home to such Gordian Knots.