In what was described as a “quiet revolution” last week the Republic of Ireland voted by a margin of 66.4% to 33.6% to overturn the abortion ban. Following this vote, attention turned to Northern Ireland.
To begin, some context. The 1967 Abortion Act which established legal abortion in the UK has never applied in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has also always been considered more socially conservative than the rest of the United Kingdom. Campaigners now believe this referendum vote is the catalyst for change.
Furthermore, support is growing in Parliament. 130 MPs have confirmed they would back an amendment to the Domestic Violence Bill to give Northern Irish women the same rights as other women in the UK. Education Minister Anne Milton has called for a free vote and Penny Mordaunt responsible for the women and equalities brief said the referendum signalled a “historic and great day for Ireland” and a “hopeful one for Northern Ireland.”
So, what is the problem? Firstly, health and therefore abortion are devolved issues. According to reports this is a position Theresa May is unwilling to challenge. Secondly, there is no devolved Government in Northern Ireland meaning in effect Northern Ireland is presently under a form of direct rule. Lastly, there is the DUP. Theresa May’s fragile Government is reliant on the support of the DUP who have warned of “consequences” should the Prime Minister act.
This leaves the Prime Minister with a headache with social, political and moral considerations to take into account.
Should she refuse to grant her MPs a free vote she leaves herself open to being criticised for being on the wrong side of history. To add to her problems, speculation has even suggested some Tory MPs are willing to rebel even if a free vote isn’t granted. Politically, that would be devastating for the Prime Minister. The Labour Party has also exerted their own pressure claiming this represents a “feminist test” for Theresa May.
However, politically this isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem. Any new legislation would undoubtedly give the DUP a bloody nose. The DUP hold considerable power and can bring the Government down. With many knife-edge votes ahead the Prime Minister needs the DUP on her side. Moreover, the idea of a UK Prime Minister dictating Northern Ireland policy comes with a historic health warning.
Theresa May’s job just gets easier and easier by the day!
Article by Mike Hough
Photograph; The Independent