It wasn’t just any old Yes.
Ireland’s answer to the abortion question was a resounding great roar of a Yes, the sort that makes you think this is just the beginning, not the end, of things – the first domino to fall, in a line ripe for toppling. And nowhere more than in Northern Ireland.
It’s long been the only part of the UK not to enjoy the reproductive rights the rest of us take for granted. Even if you’ve been raped, even if it’s clear the baby can’t possibly survive, the choice is still between an anxious journey to clinics in England or illegally buying abortion pills online (a criminal offence, for which a young Belfast woman got a one-year suspended prison sentence in 2016 after her flatmates reported her to police).
But, now, Northern Ireland looks more isolated than ever. Its once devoutly Catholic southern neighbour has managed to legalise both abortion and gay marriage, but unionist politicians in the north are still holding out against the 21st century, even though it’s increasingly clear they’re out of step with their own people.This isn’t the buttoned-up Northern Ireland of a generation ago, when Ian Paisley was still calling alcohol the “devil’s buttermilk” and vowing to save the country from sodomy. Recent surveys show over three-quarters think abortion should be legal in case of rape or foetal abnormality. Women on both sides of the border worked together to change the law in Ireland and now Irish Yes campaigners are ready to return the favour, vowing not to see their northern sisters left behind.
But still the fervently pro-life Democratic Unionist Party – on whose votes Theresa May’s fragile parliamentary majority depends – is having none of it. And that leaves the prime minister in a deeply awkward position. Back the DUP and she’s arguably betraying both her own feminist principles and many of her colleagues (the women and equalities minister, Penny Mordaunt, supports abortion rights for Northern Ireland). Offend the DUP, on the other hand, and they could in theory pull the plug on the government.
Frankly, women facing unwanted pregnancies don’t deserve to become a side issue in someone else’s grand political project
But what makes the situation even more complicated is that it’s not actually up to Westminster to change the law – in theory, it’s up to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, because powers over abortion law were devolved to them. Unfortunately, right now, Stormont is barely capable of changing a lightbulb. The assembly collapsed 17 months ago after the main parties refused to continue sharing power with each other. Nobody wanted to risk a violent backlash by restoring direct rule from Westminster, which would be a backwards step for the peace process, so civil servants have been holding the fort ever since.
But, arguably, this isn’t the sort of decision some unelected official in London can take over women’s heads, because it’s no longer just about whether the same rights apply in Belfast as in Birmingham. Ireland’s Yes puts a third option on the table, which is copying their proposed reforms (more liberal than British law in early pregnancy, since women could get an abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy without giving a reason, but stricter around later terminations). And in Northern Ireland, asking people to choose whether they’re closer to the British or Irish public mood is a deeply loaded question.
It’s all very well calling for a referendum on abortion in the north, too. But that could very easily get tangled up in bigger questions about Northern Ireland’s future inside the union, especially as it would most likely be held during a fraught run-up to Brexit. (Like Scotland, Northern Ireland voted to remain but is now being dragged out of the EU anyway, while Theresa May still doesn’t seem to have a workable answer to the problems that creates along the Irish border).
And, frankly, women facing unwanted pregnancies don’t deserve to become a side issue in someone else’s grand political project. They’re not political footballs, to be shuffled around for the supposedly greater good. What women need now is a speedy solution to gridlock at Stormont, so that Northern Ireland can once again make its own decisions, and politicians who aren’t lagging 20 years behind the people they’re supposed to represent. Or, one by one, those dominoes are going to wobble.