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Injustices which underpinned North's unionist regime in 1966 still exist

Susan McKay: Mother faces jail over her raped daughter’s abortion in bizarrely governed region

In 1966, when fine people like brave Ivan Cooper, who has just died, were beginning to organise for the civil rights movement, the Sunday Times published an article which blew Northern Ireland wide open.

After years of agreed gentlemanly silences, the injustices which underpinned the unionist regime were laid out. Published shortly after a royal visit, the piece warned the British prime minister: “When the flags and bunting are hauled down . . . the government will still be confronted with a sharp alternative; whether to use reserve powers to bring elementary social justice to Ulster or simply allow Britain’s most isolated province to work out its own bizarre identity. During the 45 years since partition the latter has often been negligently adopted with what looks like disastrous results.”

The piece was called “John Bull’s Political Slum”. Just over half a century later, after a bloody conflict lasting 30 years, a peace process, and an experiment in democratic power sharing that has for now collapsed, last week we got this a glimpse of what Northern Irish social justice looks like.

She sent for abortion pills which, had she been living in any other part of the UK, she could have obtained from the NHS

A mother is to be brought before the criminal courts because six years ago she helped her daughter, then a 15-year-old child, to have an abortion, after the girl became pregnant by rape within a physically and mentally abusive relationship.


The woman is charged with unlawfully procuring and supplying “a poison or other noxious thing” knowing it was to be used to bring about a miscarriage. In other words, she sent for abortion pills which, had she been living in any other part of the UK, she could have obtained freely from the National Health Service.

Afterwards, the mother looked for counselling for her child, because of the relationship, and mentioned the pregnancy, the pills and the termination. She was reported to the police. They interviewed her and sent a file to the public prosecution service, which decided it was in the public interest for her to be sent for trial. She could be jailed for up to five years.

Karen Bradley’s inaction

Now to the “bizarre identity” of Northern Ireland. The DUP has claimed that keeping abortion out of the North is a “red-line issue”, yet a 2018 poll showed that 67 per cent of DUP voters said it should be decriminalised. Overall, 80 per cent of people in Norther Ireland believe a woman should have the right to an abortion if her health is at risk or if she has been raped.

In the rest of the UK, 83 per cent of those surveyed said women in the North should have equal access to abortion pills, and 75 per cent said the UK government should decriminalise abortion. Amnesty International in Belfast has campaigned diligently to address the "glaring inequality", the cruelty.

Last October, MPs voted to oblige secretary of state Karen Bradley to act on abortion and on same-sex marriage, which is also illegal in the North, while it is legal in England, Scotland and Wales. Nor do women in Northern Ireland have the same protections from male violence.

It is heartening, however, to note that despite the DUP's opposition, the rainbow flag flew over many council buildings in the North over the weekend, for Pride

Bradley has steered clear. The British government cannot afford to lose the DUP votes Theresa May bought to stay in power, and has abandoned all pretence of the "rigorous impartiality" it committed to in the Belfast Agreement. May soon found out she had not bought loyalty. British Tories offer none in return. Recently we learned that 59 per cent of them would rather see Northern Ireland leave the UK than abandon Brexit.

With exquisite irony, DUP leader Arlene Foster turned up in Finchley (as in Thatcher's "Belfast is as British as...") last week and told local conservatives that the union was "special" and "precious" and more important than any other political cause.

Shifting identities

Last week, Katy Hayward, the stellar Brexit analyst, presented new evidence of changing political identities in the North at a seminar in Dublin. Data she and Cathal McManus compiled last year shows that half of the people in a survey said that they identified as neither unionist nor nationalist. A similar poll in 1998 found that just a third of people designated themselves in this way.

The “neithers” grew by 5 per cent in one year, from 2017 to 2018. The greatest change is happening in the Protestant community. In 2017, 32 per cent of the people surveyed said they were unionists. Last year that had fallen to 26 per cent.

At least some of that drift must have to do with support for human rights and for equality with the citizens of the Republic, the UK and the EU. Some must also be connected to the DUP’s hardcore Brexit position, held fast to even though the outcome will be damaging for unionists, nationalists and those who are neither.

Then there is Ian Paisley jnr, exposed in an admirable BBC Northern Ireland investigation which said he had holidayed in the Maldives at the expense of its government, the interests of which he had promoted in the UK. There was no mention of these trips when he claimed his God had forgiven him for similar jaunts to Sri Lanka. A man from his constituency said on the radio he didn’t care what Paisley did. He was “a man of integrity.” He was a Trump for Ulster.

It is heartening, however, to note that despite the DUP’s opposition, the rainbow flag flew over many council buildings in the North over the weekend, for Pride. Hope has not been entirely abandoned. But it is painful to think of the anxiety and distress of a woman facing prison because she loved and protected her child in a bizarrely governed state in which elementary social justice is denied.