Show Hide image

Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Show Hide image

The unholy huddle

Northern Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws are supported by politicians across the sectarian divide. Women are paying the price.

In June 2013 a 26-year-old administrative assistant named Sarah Ewart married her long-term boyfriend in Belfast. Soon she was pregnant. At 19 weeks, “for a bit of fun”, she and her husband, Jason, paid for a scan so that they could see the baby. Instead, the sonographer sent them straight to the Ulster Hospital, where a consultant told them that their baby – a girl – had anencephaly, meaning she had no skull or brain. She would die either in the womb or within minutes of being born, and it would be a difficult and dan­gerous birth.

The couple, both devout Christians, were distraught. After much anguish they decided to terminate the pregnancy. “I couldn’t go through nine months of pregnancy to come home with nothing and simply prepare for a funeral,” Ewart recalled tearfully as she sat in her neat home on the eastern fringe of the city one recent morning.

But the consultant told her that a termination was not possible in Northern Ireland. The province never adopted the Abortion Act 1967, which legalised abortion in the rest of the United Kingdom. It is still governed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which makes it a crime, punishable by life imprisonment, to administer “any poison or other noxious thing” or to “use any instrument” to induce a miscarriage. The sole exceptions are when a woman’s life, or her long-term mental or physical health, is at risk.

Ewart’s only option was to travel to England for an abortion, as many hundreds of women from Northern Ireland do each year, but the doctors were constrained even from telling her where to go, for fear of prosecution. “I am not going to prison for anybody,” one doctor declared, banging her desk with a folder. Ewart consulted the Yellow Pages and then visited a family planning centre in central Belfast, which gave her the phone number of an advice centre outside Northern Ireland. As she left the building with her husband and mother, Ewart was accosted by anti-abortion protesters brandishing photographs of dismembered foetuses. “Don’t kill your baby!” they shouted, though they knew nothing about her case. “I was in floods of tears,” she said.

She and her mother, Jane Christie, emailed all 108 members of the Stormont assembly, Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament, begging for an exemption so she would not have to travel to England. Only two bothered to reply.

Christie took out a £2,100 bank loan, because women from Northern Ireland are ineligible for free abortions on the NHS. On 6 October that year, they flew to England and checked in to a cheap hotel in Streatham, south London. At the abortion clinic Ewart joined what she described as a “conveyor belt” of girls waiting to rid themselves of unwanted pregnancies.

“While I was grieving, they were talking about what bar they were heading to that night,” she said. The foetus was disposed of without her seeing it. “It was just horrendous. I just don’t know what I’d do if I had to go through that again.” She resolved to fight to change the law. Outraged by the indifference of members of the legislative assembly, she told her story that same month to Stephen Nolan, the host of a popular show on BBC Radio Ulster.

The interview had an enormous impact, igniting a controversy over Northern Ireland’s draconian and archaic abortion law that is still raging. Ewart’s story made it impossible for the religious fundamentalists – Protestant and Catholic – who supported the status quo to continue to claim the moral high ground. It undermined the notion that abortions were the fruit of sexual promiscuity. Ewart was clearly not some feckless teenager who had slept around. She was happily married. She had desperately wanted her baby. She was, moreover, a churchgoing Presbyterian who, like the rest of her family, always voted for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland’s biggest political party and a staunch defender of the existing abortion law. Far from demanding wholesale reform, moreover, Ewart was campaigning merely for the ban to be lifted in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities.

As David Ford, the leader of the centrist Alliance Party, told me: “The interview made a lot of people stop and think, ‘What if it was my wife or daughter?’”

“It really touched people,” Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland programme director, agreed. “Until then, abortion had been seen in very black-and-white terms – pro-life v pro-choice, almost good v evil. Suddenly, here was a case that introduced grey areas, and real life.”

***

For nearly three decades, from the late 1960s onwards, the Troubles trapped Northern Ireland in a time warp. The sectarian conflict dominated politics, to the exclusion of social issues. It reinforced religious identities and isolated the province from progressive outside influences.

In the late 1990s the Reverend Ian Paisley was still fulminating about “sodomites at Stormont” when Elton John gave a concert there, and hardline Protestants picketed a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Opera House in Belfast because they considered it blasphemous. Even today, gay marriage is not permitted. Emma Campbell, of the pressure group Alliance for Choice, characterises sex education in some faith-based schools in Northern Ireland as “cross your legs, hold hands and wait till you are married”.

When in 2012 a private Marie Stopes clinic offering a very limited – and entirely legal – abortion service opened opposite the Europa Hotel in Belfast, uproar ensued. There were furious demonstrations, staff and patients were abused, and John Larkin, the attorney general for Northern Ireland, tried unsuccessfully to shut it down. Larkin, a Roman Catholic, declined to be interviewed for this article, but in 2008 he likened abortion to “putting a bullet in the head of the child two days after it’s born”.

Edwin Poots, the DUP assembly member and health minister, weighed in by publishing draft guidelines for health-care professionals that threatened prosecution if they breached his extremely narrow interpretation of the abortion law. The guidelines said, for instance, that they had to report women who sought their help after using abortion pills, and that doctors should consult psychiatrists before determining that a woman’s long-term mental health was at risk.

“The chill and fear went through the corridors of every hospital and every individual,” Samina Dornan, a senior consultant at the Royal Maternity Hospital in Belfast, told me. The number of abortions carried out in the province fell from 51 in the year starting April 2012 to just 16 in 2014-15.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) felt compelled to advise its 1,250 members in Northern Ireland to adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy if women came to them with complications that could have been caused by abortion pills. “It’s totally unacceptable that a piece of legislation dating back to 1861 is still current. It’s totally unfit for purpose, and protects neither women nor the staff caring for them,” said Breedagh Hughes, the RCM’s Northern Ireland director, when we met at her city-centre office.

The furore over the Marie Stopes clinic, closely followed by Sarah Ewart’s interview, prompted the Alliance Party leader Ford, who was then justice minister, to propose a very modest reform – that abortions should be permitted in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

In February this year the assembly – four-fifths male – voted on that, and on another amendment that would allow abortions in cases of rape or incest. The first was defeated 59-40, the second 64-30, with the DUP and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party locked in an improbable alliance that for once transcended the province’s sectarian divide – what Ewart’s mother described to me as a “holy huddle”.

The votes flew in the face of polls suggesting that nearly 70 per cent of the public supported the amendments. They also defied a ruling three months earlier by a high court judge, Mr Justice Horner, that the abortion ban breached the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to allow exceptions for fatal foetal abnormalities and sex crimes (only the Republic of Ireland and Malta have more restrictive legislation).

“I was gutted,” said Ewart, who had joined various human rights organisations in seeking a judicial review of the law. “Winning that ruling was like winning the Lottery, only to find there was no money.”

Pro-choice activists were enraged. “Our not-in-my-backyard politicians know full well that abortions happen and are required, but as long as they’re exported, that’s OK,” said Kellie O’Dowd, who chairs Alliance for Choice. “They see any relaxation as encouragement to sexual immorality.” Breedagh Hughes said: “Our unionist politicians insist Belfast is as British as Bristol – except when it comes to this issue.”

***

Ian Paisley, the fire-and-brimstone preacher who died in 2014, created the DUP in 1971, and even today a third of its members and elected representatives are members of the small, fundamentalist and patriarchal Free Presbyterian Church, which he also founded. Followers of that Church take every word of the Bible literally, condemn drinking, smoking, homosexuality and miscegenation, and expect women to cover their head in church.

The DUP hierarchy refused to be interviewed for this article, but others who share their absolutist views were less reticent.

Peter Lynas, Northern Ireland director of the Evangelical Alliance, is a smooth-talking former barrister who recently masterminded the building of a £3m, thousand-seater evangelical megachurch in the northern town of Coleraine. As we sat in his office in Paisley’s old Belfast East stronghold, he told me he opposes abortions for fatal foetal abnormalities because they cannot be tightly defined, and for rape and incest, because proof of such crimes could not be obtained in the short time available. More importantly, he argued, destroying a life is wrong in any circumstances. A foetus is “either a human being, in which case no justification for abortion is adequate, or it’s not, in which case no justification is required. We say it is always a human being.”

Bernadette Smyth, a devout Catholic with four children, is the founder of a group called Precious Life and a self-styled “voice for the unborn child”. From a central Belfast office financed by the American anti-abortion organisation Stanton Healthcare of Boise, Idaho, she campaigns to close the Marie Stopes clinic, which she accuses of profiting from death.

Her “street counsellors” and “prayer partners” constantly picket the clinic, hanging graphic photographs of mutilated foetuses from lamp posts and accosting women going in and out, all of which has forced the clinic to offer its patients escorts equipped with body cameras and walkie-talkies. In December 2014 Smyth was found guilty of harassing Dawn Purvis, who was then the clinic’s director, and ordered to pay £2,000 compensation and to perform 100 hours of community service. Her conviction was later overturned for lack of evidence.

Smyth calls abortion “the killing of innocent, vulnerable, unborn children”. When we met at her office – all purples and greys, with the slogan “Live Laugh Love” inscribed on a wall – she showed me a framed sonogram of “David”, a 20-week-old foetus. David’s hard-pressed mother had wanted to abort him, Smyth said, until she was rescued by the Precious Life counsellors and given the financial and moral support she needed to persevere. “I’ve lost count of how many babies I’ve helped save,” she said.

Far from relaxing the law, Smyth wants even tighter restrictions on the province’s doctors. As an alternative to abortion, she and Peter Lynas of the Evangelical Alliance want women to be given more counselling and support to shepherd them through crisis pregnancies: what Lynas calls a “comprehensive and tailored pathway to care”.

They deny that their views are extreme. “What’s extreme about loving and caring for vulnerable and innocent children?” Smyth asked. “There’s nothing extreme about loving women so much you want to provide and care for them throughout whatever crisis they are in. It’s not extreme to campaign against death.”

But their brand of compassion cuts little ice with Smyth’s old nemesis, Dawn Purvis.

Northern Ireland has long produced strong women. They held their communities together during the Troubles while their menfolk fought. Purvis led the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party for three years until she resigned over the failure of its ­paramilitary counterpart, the Ulster Volunteer Force, to disarm in 2010. She also founded the Marie Stopes clinic, and when we met at the headquarters of Alliance for Choice, an industrial unit overshadowed by the giant steel-and-wire-mesh “peace wall” that still divides the Falls Road from the Shankill, she told me harrowing stories of women who have sought its help.

One had been beaten and raped by her partner for 72 hours, during which he had knelt on top of her and cut a contraceptive implant from her arm with a Stanley knife. Another woman’s partner had removed her coil with a pair of pliers. A 12-year-old girl raped by a relative had been forced to travel to England for an abortion, with police officers accompanying her to retrieve the foetus as “evidence”. Each February, Purvis said, there is a surge in the number of women seeking help because they have been raped and abused by their partner over the Christmas period.

“When I hear our politicians ranting about their views, and I mean ranting, I wish they could sit in front of these women and tell them, ‘No, you’re not having an abortion. Continue with your pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption,’” she said. “They’ve no idea about the extremely frightening and complicated situations these women face. I think it’s immoral to refuse them abortions. It’s un-Christian.”

At the Alliance for Choice office I also met a 29-year-old woman who works in human resources in Craigavon, south-west of Belfast. “Judy” – she withheld her real name for fear of retribution from the anti-abortion lobby – became pregnant in late 2013, a year after marrying. Happy and excited, she and her husband went for her 20-week scan, only to learn that their baby had a form of dwarfism called thanatophoric dysplasia. Worse, its ribcage was so narrow that its lungs could not develop, and it would suffocate at birth even if it survived that long.

After much soul-searching the couple decided to terminate the pregnancy, not ­because the baby was deformed, but because it would be “born to die, and everyone knew it”. They wanted the abortion to be performed and to begin grieving, but were informed curtly by a doctor: “That’s not going to happen.”

“In a split second she took away our light at the end of the tunnel,” Judy said. She was forced to carry the baby to term. For 15 weeks, as her bump grew, she endured the congratulations of strangers and people asking what sex it was. “It took every ounce of my strength to hold it together,” she said. Work colleagues who knew the truth avoided her, not knowing what to say. “I would just go home and sob.”

She had to mix with other pregnant women at prenatal clinics. She discovered that the baby was a girl, and had to discuss with her consultant whether she wanted her child resuscitated at birth, and how many times.

The baby was born dead, but Judy’s agony continued. People who remembered her pregnancy would ask how the baby was doing. When she told them it was stillborn they were mortified. A termination “would have diminished our suffering. Being forced to continue with this pregnancy merely added to the tragedy,” she recalled. “We’re a modern country, and not to allow women a medical procedure in their greatest time of need is ridiculous.”

***

Today both Judy and Sarah Ewart, whose radio interview ignited the debate, have healthy babies, but the controversy rages on. Officially 833 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortions in 2015, though the real number is probably double that. Most were aged between 20 and 35, and 62 per cent had partners, so few were the promiscuous teenagers of the politicians’ imagination.

Many people regard Northern Ireland’s wilful exporting of its problem as shameful. “We should look after our own women,” Professor Jim Dornan, one of the leading obstetricians in the province, said. But no political redress is imminent.

Although a more liberal assembly was elected in May, and though Sinn Fein – the second-biggest party – now favours a limited relaxation of the abortion law, the DUP retains what is in effect a veto over any change, thanks to a procedural device called a “petition of concern”, which was originally designed to safeguard minority rights in the power-sharing assembly. That is how the DUP thwarted a vote in favour of gay marriage last November.

Nor is any legal redress imminent. John Larkin, the attorney general, has appealed against Justice Horner’s ruling that the present law breaches human rights. Whatever the result of that appeal, the case is expected to go first to the Supreme Court in London, then to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Increasingly, however, the “abortion pill” offers women in Northern Ireland a way around the ban, especially for those too poor to go to England.

The pills, easily purchased online for as little as £50, are perfectly safe if administered properly, but not if taken secretly by women who may ignore the instructions, use them too late, have pre-existing medical conditions, or hesitate to seek help if they suffer complications for fear of prosecution. There is a danger of severe haemorrhaging, and if the foetal sac is incompletely discharged the remnants can become infected, leading to potentially fatal sepsis.

Though used worldwide, such pills are still illegal in Northern Ireland. In February an anonymous, 21-year-old woman was convicted and given a three-month suspended prison sentence after her Belfast flatmates reported her to the police for ­using them. Other prosecutions are pending.

But, like latter-day suffragettes, some women’s rights activists are starting to flout the law openly, defying the police to arrest them. Last year 215 women signed an open letter in which they said they had bought abortion pills, and invited prosecution. In May three others, hoping for a showcase trial, presented themselves at a police station in Derry and asked to be prosecuted for procuring the pills. In June pro-choice activists used a drone to fly abortion pills across the border from the republic to show that the law was absurd and unenforceable.

The activists argue that, by banning the pills, Northern Ireland’s politicians are merely driving abortion underground, with potentially fatal consequences of a sort that should belong to the past.

“Making abortion illegal doesn’t make it go away. It makes it unsafe,” said a young woman called Cara, who once self-aborted in a Travelodge hotel room and now helps other women who need to have abortions. Over a drink at a pub in Belfast, she told me how, in her own caravan, she had helped a part-time shop assistant terminate her pregnancy. The woman couldn’t afford to go to England and was too ashamed to tell her family she was pregnant.

Health-care professionals are increasingly alarmed by the implications for women. “This is the modern equivalent of the backstreet abortion. It might not be coat hangers and knitting needles, but the outcome is the same,” said Breedagh Hughes, of the Royal College of Midwives. “My biggest worry is that women will be deterred from seeking the help they need, and that the old spectre of women dying from botched abortions will rear its ugly head again.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue