Northern Ireland to feel ripple effect from referendum Yes
‘The South has taken a big leap and . . . the North will actually feel it’s been left behind’
Abortion in the North is permitted only if a woman’s life is at risk or there is long-term risk to mental or physical health. Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not qualifying grounds.
Sinn Féin abstentionist MP for Mid-Ulster Francie Molloy, who represents a rural constituency straddling south Derry and east Tyrone, has been one of few high-profile politicians from that party to publicly oppose abortion.
Like others, he was surprised by the scale of Friday's Yes victory: “I think the South has taken a big leap and with the change there I think the North will actually feel it’s been left behind. And that will start to change attitudes.
“I don’t agree with it, but I think people get carried along in the flow and I think the referendum result has changed things completely. It’s populism, it’s going with the populist line,” he says.
Every day three women from Northern Ireland travel to Britain for abortion that can be performed legally there, but not in the North. Many others risk criminal prosecution for importing and using illegal abortion pills at homes.
Abortion law in NI dates back to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice Act (NI) 1945, making abortion illegal in almost every circumstance and the law is one of the most restrictive in the world.
Abortion is permitted only if a woman’s life is at risk or there is risk to her mental or physical health that is long term or permanent. Rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not qualifying grounds.
Thirteen abortions, within the current law, took place in Northern Ireland hospitals in 2016-17. In June 2017 the Supreme Court in London narrowly upheld a ban on NHS-funded abortion care in England for women from the North.
Subsequently, British Labour Party MP Stella Creasy proposed that Northern Ireland women should have access to free abortions up to 24 weeks in England, rather than having to pay for them as they did before. A majority of voting MPs agreed.
The Republic’s referendum result will bring change in NI, inevitably, Molloy believes: “The gates are open now, the doors are open. You’ll find a demand now coming in the North for similar legislation, or certainly legislation which would allow people from the North to access abortion in the South.”
However, many of Sinn Féin’s grassroots in NI oppose the more liberal tendencies displayed by their southern brethren – but Molloy believes the common goal of a united Ireland will overcome differences on other issues, including this.
On Saturday, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Northern chief Michelle O’Neill together held up a hand-written poster declaring, “The North is next”. But the party has yet to copperfasten its position on the 12-week threshold.
The road ahead for Sinn Féin is clear. It will hold its next ardfheis in Belfast in mid-June, where party policy should change from supporting abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality to backing the Government’s proposed legislation.
Had the referendum vote been tighter, McDonald and O’Neill could have expected to fend off opposition before delegates gathered, if not at the ardfheis itself. But the resounding result clears the way on that score.
Strabane, Co Tyrone, Sinn Féin Cllr Brian McMahon campaigned in nearby Lifford, Co Donegal, for a Yes vote in the referendum, a decision not taken lightly. “I took a conscious decision, a hard decision, to think what is the best and the safest thing to do.”
However, the result in the Republic and calls for change in the North will challenge some “good strong party people” across Northern Ireland, he predicted.
Sinn Féin will get “a bounce” in some of parts of the Republic for the role it played in the referendum campaign. But “in certain parts of the North there could be a shift away from them”, he believes.
During the recent House of Commons byelection in Tyrone, McMahon faced opposition from “strong republican” households: “[I] was told, ‘sorry, not this time, we’ll not be voting SF because of the party’s position on abortion’.”
Saying he had tried “to see the bigger picture”, McMahon defends his position: “sometimes you just can’t sit on the fence any more, you have to come down one way or the other.”
Former Sinn Féin MLA Maeve McLaughlin argues that the legislation to come before the Oireachtas will have to be ringfenced to ensure that women living in Northern Ireland can travel South and get access to services there.
“It would be foolish and quite hypocritical of us if we had a situation whereby despite years and years of campaigning that somehow if you lived in Derry you couldn’t access the healthcare that somebody in Donegal can,” she declared.
“There is a cultural shift in Ireland. It’s been happening for a number of years and we saw it in the result on Saturday. That mindset doesn’t just stop at the Border,” says McLaughlin, a former chairwoman of Stormont’s Health Committee.