A tale of two MPs: Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn
Two architects of social change in Northern Ireland
Stella Creasy MP in her Walthamstow constituency in London. Creasy was crucial in helping to change the law on abortion in Northern Ireland.
After the Eighth Amendment was repealed in the Republic, feminists on both sides of the Border vowed that the North would be next. Marriage equality campaigners who got same-sex marriage legalised south of the Border likewise committed to continuing the struggle on the northern side.
Last Monday, the Northern Ireland Bill passed its final stages in the British parliament and has received the Queen’s assent. At last, the abortion ban, which had been in place since 1861, has been lifted, and equal marriage has been legalised. That is unless the Northern Ireland Executive is restored by October 21st this year, and no one thinks that is going to happen.
For the campaigners who fought for them, these freedoms have been a long, hard time coming. In the end, it was two British Labour MPs who got the necessary amendments to the law across the line.
They are Stella Creasy, whose parents were feminist Labour Party activists in Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham, and Conor McGinn, from Camlough in south Armagh. His mother was a trade unionist, his father a Sinn Féin councillor, his uncle an SDLP one and his great-grandfather was a justice of the peace and, reputedly, “a sound republican”.
This is the tale of those two MPs who have been crucial to the legal changes that will herald sweeping social change in the North.
Stella Creasy works from a very simple principle: “When you see an injustice, you have a responsibility to act,” she says. The member of parliament for Walthamstow in east London saw what she believed was an extremely cruel injustice when she looked at the plight of women in Northern Ireland faced with unwanted or unviable pregnancies.
Under a law passed in 1861, abortion is a criminal offence with a potential penalty of life imprisonment. She saw, and she acted, and because of her persistence, women will, by the end of next March, be able to access abortions in the North under the National Health Service (NHS) as a matter of basic reproductive healthcare.
“It’s a fundamental question of freedom,” she says. “People kept telling me that when we got the right of Northern Irish women to travel to other parts of the UK and get an abortion on the NHS, that was the best we could do.” This was the North’s equivalent of the “right to travel” which existed in the Republic until the ban on abortion was swept aside by the Repeal the Eighth campaign.
Creasy insisted, however, that women in Northern Ireland paid their taxes for the NHS in the same way as everyone else: “They could not be made second-class citizens.” An Amnesty poll last year found that 65 per cent of Northern Irish people believed abortion should be available in some circumstances, while 66 per cent thought that in the absence of an Assembly, parliament should legislate for it.
Things were complicated by the fact that the Conservative government is propped up by the votes of the DUP, which vehemently opposed the change. However, watching cross-party MPs line up to vote for the amendment she proposed to the Northern Ireland Bill to decriminalise abortion there, she felt a surge of confidence. “I could see that something magic was happening.”
It was a free vote. Tory ministers and MPs were among those who supported Creasy. The amended Bill was passed by 328 votes to 65. The DUP’s Ian Paisley accused politicians of hijacking the Northern Irish Bill and using it as “a vehicle for every other subject under the sun” and that it was an “outrage to common decency”.
There are those who say this is a difficult moral issue. But it isn’t. It is a matter of human rights
Creasy talks a lot about anger. “I have to control it,” she says. She knows that when people look at her speaking on television or in the House of Commons, they can see that she is suppressing it, holding it back.
“There are those who say this is a difficult moral issue,” she says. “But it isn’t. It is a matter of human rights. It is simply every person’s right to control what happens to their own body.”
She says she had to stop watching the superb TV dramatisation of Margaret Attwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, because it was making her so furious. The novel is set in a dystopia called Gilead in which women are subjugated, forced to become vessels to produce babies for the men who are in charge.
“I listened to MPs preaching about the need for human rights in other parts of the world and getting agitated about the denial of women’s right to abortion in Trump’s Alabama,” she says. “Yet they ignore what is going on in their own back yard. The regime is even harsher in Northern Ireland.”
The fight for equality, she has written, “isn’t just about what is attacked, it is also about what is ignored”. She says that as she gets older she is less and less concerned about asking politely for change. “It doesn’t work,” she says.
Last year the UK’s supreme court stated that the law in Northern Ireland needed “radical reconsideration” given that it “treated women like vehicles”.
The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) found women in the North were subjected to “grave and systemic violations of rights”. Earlier this summer, the UN’s Committee on Torture condemned the situation.
The UN also said the UK could not invoke internal arrangements to justify its failure to revise laws in Northern Ireland that violate the Convention on Human Rights. The DUP has claimed that abortion is a devolved matter to be dealt with at Stormont and that parliament has no right to interfere.
“We are very clear,” says Creasy. “Devolution is not segregation. Human rights are not devolved.” Besides which, the Executive at Stormont collapsed in acrimony 2½ years ago and there is no sign of it returning. In that time, several thousand women who chose abortion to end crisis pregnancies will have had to leave Northern Ireland or risk prosecution by ordering pills.
A thousand women last year having to travel out of Northern Ireland to England, and others to other places. It is barbaric
When the Conservatives formed their coalition with the DUP, Creasy saw an opportunity to show people what was happening in the DUP’s home patch.
“Women’s homes were being raided for pills that are available elsewhere in the UK on the NHS; the mother of a 15 year old was being prosecuted for getting pills for her daughter; a thousand women last year having to travel out of Northern Ireland to England, and others to other places. It is barbaric,” she says.
Creasy is also among the MPs who have ensured that British legislation to criminalise the use of coercive control by domestic abusers will be extended to the North.
She is in awe of Belfast woman Sarah Ewart who was happily pregnant until she found out that her baby would suffer from fatal foetal abnormality. She had to travel to England for an abortion and has spoken eloquently of how harrowing this journey was. Backed by Amnesty, she has fought the government through the courts on behalf of other women and a supreme court ruling is imminent.
“She is an amazing person who has been brave enough to come forward; it is extraordinary what she has achieved,” says Creasy. “I’m also blown away by the energy and commitment of the pro-choice campaigners in Northern Ireland, especially the young women.”
The North’s Alliance for Choice and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has been dynamic in exploring all avenues towards decriminalisation. Creasy has had Irish woman Cara Sanquest, one of the founders of the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, as her adviser.
Creasy is modest about her own role. “Other people did all the hard work,” she says. “All I did was talk about Gilead.”
The activist said I hate all unborn babies. Which is strange considering I have a five-month one in my belly
She knows it isn’t true. She has been fighting for human rights for years, has supported Irish feminist groups in the UK, and is involved in campaigns for, among other things, equal pay, housing justice and the protection of the rights of immigrants. She came to Dublin to contribute to an Irish Times Women’s Podcast on repeal in 2017 and to walk in that year’s March for Choice.
Now pregnant, she recently took part in a television debate with a prominent anti-choice activist. “The activist said I hate all unborn babies,” she says. “Which is strange considering I have a five-month one in my belly.” Creasy has spoken publicly about the trauma of having had miscarriages. She is outraged that the House of Commons does not provide maternity pay.
The Northern Ireland Bill represents a “sea change”, Creasy says. However, she insists that feminists need to have a global perspective. “These battles aren’t over until they are won everywhere. I feel there is a need for a wider debate about how a woman’s fertility is a source of inequality,” she says. “We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”
“They’ll be queuing round the block to get married in City Hall,” says Conor McGinn, MP for St Helens, between Liverpool and Manchester, and a former shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland. “It’s a great feeling.” It was McGinn who tabled the motion to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and bring it into line with the rest of the UK, where it has been legal since 2014.
He moved to England to go to college, and was then, he jokes, “led astray by an Englishwoman” to whom he is now married. “You go into politics to change people’s lives for the better,” he says. “There used to be an old fellow in Camlough and he’d say, ‘Somebody somewhere needs to do something about it.’ My focus in pushing for this was on people who love each other wanting to get married – simple as that. And Lyra McKee getting killed in that awful way strengthened my resolve.”
He says he would have preferred if the law could have been changed by an Assembly at Stormont. “I am a big supporter of devolution and I have always supported the devolved institutions,” he says. “But you couldn’t have people in Northern Ireland not having the same rights as people in the rest of the UK. It wasn’t a matter of usurping any democratic institution.”
The DUP has claimed that McGinn and Creasy’s amendments were anti-democratic. Like Creasy, McGinn insists human rights are not a devolved matter but are, by their nature, universal. He notes that the former secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, abstained in the vote while former secretary of state James Brokenshire voted against it. “The final ignominy in a catastrophic tenure,” McGinn remarks.
The DUP needs to recognise that not every decision made in London will suit them
He comments on the low-key response on these momentous events by Sinn Féin. “There are lessons here for both the DUP and Sinn Féin,” he says. “If decisions are not made in Belfast, they will be made in London, and the DUP needs to recognise that not every decision made in London will suit them.”
He believes some republicans are privately happy to see Westminster sorting out difficult things, while some unionists are pleased to see Brexit being resisted by the Irish Government.
He has, since the vote passed, had messages of support from McKee’s fiancee, Sara Canning, and from former president Mary McAleese. McGinn shares with McAleese “a profound Catholic faith”.
The Catholic bishops have predictably denounced the amendments to introduce abortion and same-sex marriage. McGinn takes his approach to his faith from his grandparents: “They were daily communicants but their attitude was always, ‘What would Jesus do?’
The institutional church is out of step with the people, he believes. He had to “wrestle” with the abortion issue but listened to women who told him their own stories. “This is about women and women’s lives and they are telling me they need it so that is good enough for me,” he says.
The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favour of same-sex marriage in 2015 by a majority of one vote. The DUP then made one of its most controversial uses of the Petition of Concern to block the decision. This mechanism was included in the provisions of the Belfast Agreement as a way of protecting the rights of minorities.
McGinn insists he remains on good terms with the DUP despite its horror at what he has just achieved. “I like to think I am helpful to all the parties in the North,” he says. “I have a good relationship with the DUP and Jeffrey Donaldson is a friend. We’ve been to see Ireland play England at rugby together.”
He admitted they don’t talk about things they know they will disagree on. The DUP regards homosexuality as a disorder. It also now has a lesbian councillor, something the fundamentalists find perturbing. “Dr Paisley would be aghast,” said one.
People have worked for so long on this and I have just stepped in
One of the people whose plight moved McGinn was a gay Protestant friend from Donaldson’s constituency who had to leave Northern Ireland to live in peace and get married. Another friend got married in New York but his marriage is not recognised back home. The Love Equality Northern Ireland campaign has thanked McGinn and also Lord Hayward, who steered the Bill through the House of Lords and made eloquent reference to the many people who had died by suicide rather than expose their families to the “shame” of their being gay.
McGinn says he feels “a bit sheepish” over all the praise he is getting for this breakthrough: “People have worked for so long on this and I have just stepped in.” Like Creasy, he is being too modest. There is no doubting the scale of this achievement.
“Nowhere on these islands have people had to fight longer and harder for their rights than in Northern Ireland,” says Patrick Corrigan, director of Amnesty Northern Ireland. “Future generations will no longer have to suffer the inequalities too many have endured in the past.”
As the old man from Camlough would have said, “Somebody somewhere had to do something.”
Love Equality has nominated McGinn and Hayward for Belfast Pride’s Politician of the Year award, calling them “our two champions”.
Timeline: Abortion access in Northern Ireland
1861 Offences Against The Person Act makes “procuring a miscarriage” or assisting a woman to do so a crime punishable by life in prison. This remained the law in Northern Ireland until last Monday.
1967 Abortion Act legalises abortion in certain circumstances in the UK but does not extend to Northern Ireland.
2015 Belfast High Court rules Northern Ireland abortion law incompatible with European Convention on Human Rights because it breaches the right to respect for “private and family life”.
2017 Supreme Court rules Northern Ireland women cannot get free abortions on the NHS in England and Wales but says the law is discriminatory. Stella Creasy MP amendment to allow women this right succeeds in parliament.
2018 Supreme Court finds Northern Ireland ban on abortion breaches human rights but for technical reasons stopped short of ruling it should be legalised. A ruling on a follow-up case taken by Sarah Ewart is imminent.
UN’s CEDAW says women in Northern Ireland suffer violation of their rights. UN committee on torture condemns the position in the North.
2019 Creasy amendment to Northern Ireland Bill adopted into law – abortion is decriminalised and regulations must be in place by March 31st, 2020.
Timeline: Same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland
2005 Civil Partnership Act – Northern Ireland becomes first part of UK to have ceremonies.
2015 Northern Ireland Assembly votes to legalise marriage equality by 53 votes to 52. The DUP uses a Petition of Concern to block the decision.
2017 Belfast’s High Court dismisses two cases challenging the ban. The judge said social policy was a matter for the Assembly to decide and not the courts.
2019 McGinn amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill adopted – same-sex marriage is now legal and the first marriages must be able to take place by January 14th, 2020.