An anti-abortion protest in Belfast. Photo: Getty
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Have we reached the tipping point for abortion rights in Northern Ireland?

A new legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws marks a huge success for the pro-choice movement.

Since Northern Ireland as a state first came into being almost a hundred years ago, stability and constancy have not been its strong suits.

As Northern Ireland self immolated into the violence and political unrest of The Troubles, it brought generations of political chaos for locals, but one element of politics has always remained a constant. Both sides of the conflict have always been able to agree on one common enemy – the woman who wants to choose.

Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland unless a termination is required to save a woman’s life or to avoid permanent and serious damage to her health. If the foetus is severely disabled, the woman was raped or conception was a result of incest – terminations are illegal. Access to abortion for Northern Irish women is forbidden under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and the 1945 Criminal Justice Act.

Thus, in 2015, we mark 70 years since Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were last altered. Since then, the laws have remained fundamentally touched, gathering dust on pages which are themselves naturally disintegrating through the material processes of time. Yet the laws themselves linger on, revered and perfectly preserved, like the relics of a saint.

Today, the High Court in Belfast will hear a legal challenge to the law.

A case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be heard as the group argue that terminations should made possible for women who conceive as a result of rape or incest, or where there is “serious malformation of the foetus”. Regardless of whether the legal challenge is successful, merely having the case considered by the court is a huge success for many in the local pro-choice movement. It will be the first major challenge to the status quo in living memory, a once unimaginable point.

The hearing comes quickly on the heels of a number of momentous milestones in the struggle for women’s right to choose in Northern Ireland. The debate has surged forward in the last two years to a point where the law could now feasibly be altered in small, but meaningful ways.

In 2012, the unthinkable and unexpected happened when Marie Stopes opened a private clinic in Belfast city centre. They said they would provide medical, not surgical, abortions up to nine weeks gestation- which they argued was legal within the framework of UK law. Outrage swelled locally and the Northern Irish attorney general, who is chief legal advisor to the devolved power sharing assembly and a devout Catholic, called for an investigation into its legality. However, the clinic has refused to reveal if it has yet performed any terminations in the building and insisted that its actions were legal. After much fury from pro-life protestors, the clinic was officially registered with health authorities the following year and has been allowed to operate.

In December of last year, Justice Minister David Ford announced that he was launching a public consultation to alter the law in case of what he assured the public would be only “two very narrow sets of circumstances”. Namely, when a foetus has a fatal abnormality and is neither viable inside the womb or immediately after birth, or if conception had been a result of a sexual crime such as rape or incest.

A report by Amnesty International in October of last year revealed that 69 per cent of people living in Northern Ireland believe that accessing abortion locally should be an option in the case of a woman being raped. Interestingly, Protestants were more likely to be in favour than Catholics, 73 per cent compared to 62 per cent. 68 per cent of those surveyed felt it should be available in the case of incest, while 60 per cent agreed it should be an option when there was a fatal foetal abnormality.

At least behind closed doors and when responding to surveys in private, the religious rhetoric that once gripped Northern Ireland seems to have lost its grasp.

Yet despite the majority of locals wanting the law to be changed, politicians at Stormont continue to push forward the anti-choice agenda.

The Northern Irish live in a society whose cornerstones are rigid religion and all-knowing patriarchs who decide what is best for the rest of our community. For many of our politicians, their theological beliefs imbue them with the sense of a divine right to impose their religion on others, whilst the legacy of sectarian, bipartisan politics enacts itself here in the refusal to budge an inch from unflinching, absolutist stances. This culture has lead to politicians continuing to push a line which doesn’t reflect what its citizens want when it comes to modernising the abortion laws.

Only one in five members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are female, meaning that the state has the lowest numbers of female representation of any devolved institutions in Western Europe. This means that the voices of women in Northern Ireland often go unheard. Indeed, in response to Minister Ford’s consultation on changing the abortions laws, BBC Northern Ireland held a debate which saw a male interviewer discuss the issue with three men and one woman. It’s difficult to imagine the English BBC getting away with doing the same, but here no-one batted an eyelid at the idea of men dominating discussions on women’s rights.

The Republican party Sinn Fein is the only major political party to support changing the abortion law. The left of centre nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party is theologically catholic and firmly “pro life”, while the hardline right wing Democratic Unionist Party holds the same view based on its Protestant values. Of the remaining major parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the centre ground Alliance Party say that it is a matter of personal conscience for each of their politicians to decide.

Yet, while the men on Stormont Hill pout and pontificate on the matter, more than a thousand Northern Irish women fly above their heads each year on budget airline carriers destined for England, in order to access basic healthcare.

Northern Ireland lags severely behind the rest of the UK when it comes to social attitudes. The fight for reproductive rights will be a long battle. We’ve long passed the tipping point socially, and next week’s High Court hearing and the Justice Minister’s consultation could see this finally reflected legally.

Allowing women to have a termination after rape, incest or a fatal abnormality of the foetus, would not bring local women the rights of their sisters in the rest of the UK. But it would be a meaningful start. To alter Northern Ireland’s abortion laws for the first time in seventy years would be a hard won battle in a severely stagnant society.

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.