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28 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:21pm

The only thing stopping abortion reform in Northern Ireland is May’s lack of political will

Amid calls to liberalise abortion law, the government is hiding behind the fiction that power-sharing is coming back. Instead, it can – and should – act now.

By Patrick Maguire

Northern Ireland next. That’s the message from pro-choice campaigners in the wake of the Republic’s resounding vote to repeal the eighth amendment. The rallying cry has found purchase in Westminster, most strikingly on the Tory frontbench. Penny Mordaunt, the minister for women and equalities, said on Friday that hope for reform in Northern Ireland “must be met”. 

So what is Theresa May going to do about it? Nothing, according to Downing Street. Today’s papers carry variations on the same briefing: this is a matter for Northern Ireland and its politicians, so we’ll leave it to them. Nothing to see here. Devolution, you see. A No 10 source tells the Indy

“The government thinks this is a matter for Northern Irish people and Northern Irish politicians, just as the Irish referendum was a matter for Irish voters and Irish politicians.

“We think it’s absolutely essential that power-sharing is restored at Stormont, and that’s where our focus is.”

“The hope is that big issues like this will bring the two parties together and create an impetus for power-sharing.”

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There’s one big problem with this line. After year and a half of fruitless talks, power-sharing isn’t coming back anytime soon. The government’s insistence that it will is a fiction, and not a particularly convincing one. Those familiar with the vagaries of how the government runs Northern Ireland – or, rather, how it doesn’t – know it well. Since the late Martin McGuinness collapsed the executive last January, the job of the Northern Ireland secretary has largely been to indulge it.

This means governing on a nod and a wink, and then a shrug. Ministers do the bare minimum from Westminster and civil servants keep things ticking over, powerless to take decisions of any magnitude, however necessary. The justice minister Rory Stewart called it a caretaker administration yesterday, which would be an apt metaphor were it not for the fact that caretakers usually try to hide the fact they’re sleeping on the job. 

When pressed as to what the government intends to do about something pressing, the answer from Karen Bradley and other ministers is always the same: “Sorry, what you’re talking about is devolved, so let’s get the show back on the road!” Given the unwillingness of Sinn Fein and the DUP to brook the necessary compromise to get back into government, it’s always been a weak line. But only now has its weakness been exposed to a wider audience: the denial of basic civil rights inspires a reaction that the minutiae of regional administration does not. 

Still, the government must stick to the line ad absurdum despite popular revulsion and its remoteness from political reality. Legislating for abortion rights would destroy its fiction on devolution. It would mean introducing direct rule and legislating for everything else that needs legislating for in Northern Ireland. It has neither the time, political capital nor parliamentary bandwidth for direct rule, which would create headaches within Westminster, at Stormont and with Dublin. 

But let’s be clear: if May decided to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland, she could. Human rights are not devolved. Belfast’s High Court has ruled the current prohibition on abortion violates human rights law and the UK Supreme Court will soon make its own ruling. Sinn Fein and the DUP have abdicated responsibility on devolved powers in the past, when it has suited them: in 2015 Stormont voted to let Westminster legislate for welfare reform. Formally suspending devolution, which is long overdue, would give her the power to do anything. Karen Bradley has already admitted the government could legislate to introduce equal marriage from Westminster, and that Conservative MPs would be given a free vote.  To suggest immovable constitutional hurdles are blocking the path to abortion reform is a nonsense. 

This is really about political will. The constitutional questions Downing Street is hiding behind are a product of its lack of it. The government has no incentive to make reform happen: it cannot afford to rile the DUP and nor does it want direct rule. Even Labour, whose draft general election manifesto initially suggested legislating unilaterally for abortion before the pledge was watered down, has blanched from making the call explicitly. The DUP, hegemonic in unionism, has no electoral incentive to liberalise or return to Stormont. A referendum is a non-starter: unlike in the Republic, reform could happen without it and all it would do is stir more pointless rancour in a place with no shortage of it. 

After these calculations comes the shrug. Without devolution and without direct rule, making things happen in Northern Ireland is too difficult. The government is content to tread water on abortion and everything else until its hand is forced. The courts have already ruled that Northern Ireland’s civil servants cannot take ministerial decisions. Perhaps they will rule, again, that its draconian abortion regime violates human rights law. In the meantime, it is the women of Northern Ireland who will suffer.

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