Why the Northern Ireland abortion question puts the SNP in an awkward position

Can feminism trump constitutional concerns?

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Scottish National Party is led by a woman, pioneered an equal gender cabinet, and broadly escaped the “Pestminster” scandal in the wake of #MeToo (Nicola Sturgeon has backed an investigation into the allegations against her former mentor, Alex Salmond, which he denies). Its politicians have loudly opposed Universal Credit’s “rape clause”, championed mums at work, and highlighted the cases of missing women. In short, when it comes to political parties’ feminism, the SNP is head girl.

So it might be surprising that when it comes to Victorian laws preventing women from accessing abortion, the SNP has very little to say at all.

This is, of course, because the women in question live in Northern Ireland. Campaigners for change have pinned their hopes on a solution imposed by Westminster. The Pride-attending, Saltire-waving SNP has little in common with the unionist and virulently anti-choice DUP, but when it comes to the right of Northern Ireland to make decisions for itself, even the staunchest feminists concede they have to agree.

Those on the frontline see it differently. At an SNP fringe event, Northern Irish campaigners pinned their hopes on a report from the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which found Northern Ireland’s abortion laws violate the human rights of women. The UK is responsible, they argued, and so the UK should be the body to respond. “The argument this is a devolved issue is slightly ludicrous,” said Emma Campbell from Alliance for Choice, which provides advice to women with unwanted pregnancies. “People don’t care about devolution when they need an abortion.” The 1861 law, she noted, was the same as the one recently repealed in Sierra Leone. “We are trying to get rid of an English colonial law,” she said. “We are not trying to import an English colonial law.”

Even with the best will in the world, the road to free, safe and legal abortion in Northern Ireland can, as Patrick Maguire documents here, look fairly impassable. The government at Westminster has said MPs would have a free vote on repealing the 1861 Act, should it ever come before the Commons. But even if MPs were to repeal the Act, it would still most likely be up to Northern Ireland’s devolved government to come up with new abortion legislation. Several parties have liberalised their abortion stance recently, including Sinn Fein. Yet Stormont has been without a government since the last one collapsed in January 2017.

Some SNP MPs are trying to forge a way forward. While most simply skipped the Commons emergency debate in June on the 1861 Act, Hannah Bardell pledged to look at any proposals brought forward, and Alison Thewliss called for urgent progress. “I am hopeful that the SNP would vote in support,” Alys Mumford of the Scottish feminist organisation Engender said, of a prospective Commons vote, although she acknowledged this was far from certain. The more typical SNP perspective on the Northern Ireland abortion question is likely to be that put forward by Deidre Brock: “Support I can offer and encouragement I will give, but legislation has to be with the agreement of the people.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.