Why are politicians still pretending Ireland is an abortion-free wonderland?

While our legislators bask in their moral superiority, thousands of Irish women have to travel to the UK in order to have an abortion, says Anna Carey.

If you’re Irish and pro-choice, you find yourself cheering for the introduction of abortion legislation that is, by the standards of most western countries, horrifically restrictive. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition government’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 allows a woman to obtain an abortion in order to save her life, including the threat of suicide. This law was too liberal for some Fine Gael TDs, including one junior minister who voted against it and has resigned her post. Perhaps most disturbingly, the law also states that anyone obtaining an abortion outside these circumstances can be given a maximum 14 year prison sentence. But for us, the fact that the bill was voted into law last night by 127 votes to 31 still counts as a small victory. Because it’s taken decades to get this far.

In 1992, the Supreme Court declared that a suicidal 14 year old rape victim referred to as Miss X had the right to an abortion under the Irish constitution, which enshrined her own right to life. In a referendum that year, the Irish people agreed with the Supreme Court that suicide counted as a threat to a woman’s life. But, fearing a conservative backlash, successive governments refused to introduce the necessary legislation, and thousands of Irish women did what they’d been doing for decades – they went to England, if they could afford it, and had their abortions there.

It took a tragedy for a bill to finally emerge – the death last year of Savita Halappanavar, whose death from septicemia, after doctors refused to carry out an abortion because the foetus she was miscarrying still had a heartbeat, highlighted the dangers of this legal limbo. Hopefully the new law will ensure this never happens again.

But there is much more work to do. For women confronted with the tragedy of a fatal foetal abnormality, for women who have been raped, for women whose health will be damaged by giving birth, for women who just do not want to have a child, nothing has changed. And nothing will, until yet another referendum manages to repeal the Eighth Amendment, the constitutional change introduced in 1983 which officially gave an Irish woman and her foetus an equal right to life. Until that amendment is removed, there is no chance of liberalising Irish abortion law. The campaign for a new referendum is underway.

When this issue is discussed abroad, much is made of the fact that Ireland is supposedly devoutly Catholic. But while 84 per cent of us claim to be Catholic, just 34 per cent actually attend Mass, and only 14 per cent of 18 to 34 year olds are regular Mass goers. Church teachings on sexual and reproductive issues are ignored by the majority of the population. A recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll showed that while 89 per cent supported abortion to save a woman’s life, over 80 per cent also supported abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and in cases of rape. 78 per cent said abortion should be allowed to save a woman’s health. Only 39 per cent supported abortion in cases where a woman deemed it to be in her best interest, but just 46 per cent were against this, which still isn’t a majority. Younger people were much more likely to be in favour of abortion rights.

The idea that Ireland is rabidly anti-abortion simply isn’t true – which is also proved by the thousands of Irish women who quietly go to Britain every year; official statistics released this week showed that 4,000 did so in 2012, and that only includes those who gave Irish addresses. And yet plenty of our legislators are happy to cater to well-funded religious extremists, who talk of floodgates and “abortion regimes”. They’re happy to listen to a church that still owes the Irish state €380m in compensation for sexual abuse victims. They’re happy to pretend that Ireland is an abortion-free wonderland. And while they ignore the increasingly liberal public and bask in their moral superiority, thousands of women will quietly get on a plane and let the country next door take care of them.

Read Sarah Ditum on how Ireland has avoided confronting its repressive laws by exporting its abortions.

 

An anti-abortion protester. Photograph: Getty Images
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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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