This week, buoyed by the #NowForNI campaign, Labour MPs have made multiple attempts to extend reproductive rights to the North of Ireland.
- On Tuesday 23 October, Diana Johnson’s largely symbolic ten-minute rule bill to scrap the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act (the law used to criminalise abortion) passed its first reading by 208 to 123, meaning that it will be debated again on 23 November.
- On Wednesday 24 October, Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn’s amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill passed by 207 to 117 (over 100 Conservative MPs and all 9 DUP MPs voted against). The amendment will require the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to “address incompatibilities between legislation applied in Northern Ireland and human rights obligations” and will have implications for both abortion rights and equal marriage.
As an Irish woman, I want to offer my thoughts on the abortion rights vote in Westminster this week. To be clear from the start: obviously, I am welcoming the opportunity to finally get the law in the North changed, albeit through more power in the hands of civil servants.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who is aware of the complexities of Ireland that dictating solutions from Westminster – whether it be our erstwhile borders, our recognised languages or the health of our bodies – falls foul of the most basic democratic standards.
At the same time, we have to be clear that this vote is happening because of the total failure of Stormont to represent the people of the region. Stormont is a bastion of social conservatism that acted as a muffler of progressive voices and its absence has given activists a better opportunity to raise their demands. When the Good Friday Agreement has failed to deliver a democratic and representative body, what choice do we have?
Still, there are reasons to be positive: the fact that this is happening now after years of fighting from excellent Irish feminists, and the fact that we are finally seeing an opportunity to access the most basic reproductive rights in the North is something to be celebrated. The #NowForNI campaign has come just after the Repeal the 8th referendum in the South, which was deeply supported by people from the North, who have never stopped agitating and who have now at last had a win.
Originally, I was troubled by the #NowForNI campaign because it didn’t seem to be addressing the cause of the problems. Whenever Westminster legislates for us, that takes place in a specific context brought about by an imperial relationship. Westminster created the crisis in the North. We have to demand that our civil rights be ‘granted’ by appeal to Westminster – the contradiction is that they are the ones withholding them from us. While British feminists were writing to their MPs, feminists in the North have no real representation at all. Narratives that gloss over that reality can only go so far and even tend to sideline the voices of Irish feminists. Then again, the only reason we’re seeing Westminster acting now is because of the strength of the people power movement on the ground that has been relentlessly demanding our rights. Our civil rights are not something gifted to us through a benevolent vote in Westminster – they have to be fought for.
Despite the obvious, difficult, ongoing constitutional crisis in this ‘United Kingdom’ which leaves those of us in the North with no representation, feminist organising is breaking through and forcing decision-makers to act. This is a win for us, not opportunist MPs. We are changing our society by organising through strikes, direct action and popular mobilisation in the streets. Neither Westminster nor Stormont can offer long term solutions to our problems, and with developments concerning the border, austerity and devolution, and now Direct Rule in place, the question of who governs our part of Ireland is thrown sharply into focus.
Listen to Maev McDaid and Joni Cohen discuss reproductive rights and trans people’s access to healthcare here: My body, my choice