In her dystopian novel The Children of Men, PD James foresaw a United Kingdom of mass infertility; where democracy decays as Parliament is diminished to an advisory role; where all political power is taken by a figure who calls himself the Warden; where a feminist civil war rages; where the declining population becomes over-entitled, unstable and self-centred; where kittens and other animals become substitutes for babies; where foreign workers are turned into virtual slave labour; and where the elderly and infirm are forced to commit suicide in acts of euthanasia. In this socially degraded nation, a small group of dissidents, the Five Fishes, refuse to be ground down and assimilated. They decide to fight back.
During a recent visit to Northern Ireland the resisters depicted in The Children of Men came to my mind. This small territory, with a population of 1.8 million, has been defined by the decades of violence known as the Troubles, which claimed more than 3,600 lives and inflicted an estimated 46,000 casualties.
During the peace process the amazingly resilient population, long divided along sectarian lines, came together to close that disfiguring chapter and reaffirm their shared belief in the importance of religious faith, the strength of communities and the sanctity of human life.
The ultimate success of the peace process was based on ensuring that no one group was either victorious or vanquished. It did this through the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a devolved legislature, and the Northern Ireland Executive, a devolved government.
Then, in 2017, in protest at a political scandal, Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister and, following policy disagreements between two parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Executive and Assembly collapsed.
To fill the vacuum which this inevitably created, the Government introduced a modest Bill this July to give approval to a narrow range of measures. Its ministers were warned that the Bill would be used by a cross-party group of Westminster MPs to seek to impose abortion on Northern Ireland (with subsequent help from the UK Government, it would turn out).
Despite the patronising dismissal of these warnings, the mask slipped as, one after another, British MPs and peers parroted their “long-held belief” in devolution, “opposition to direct rule” and desire to address “the democratic deficit”, and then pushed through abortion amendments, which should have been ruled outside of the Bill’s scope, to enact legislation dreamt up in the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall.
To justify this, they endlessly repeated the canard that “abortion is a human right” when they know – as distinguished academics such as Professor Mark Hill have made plain – it is not. Nowhere in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is there a right to abortion. There is, however, an injunction to uphold the very right to life itself.
This appalling travesty, which makes a mockery of democracy, exposed the shallowness of British MPs and peers’ commitment to devolution, their hard-line ideological belief that laws which have led to nine million deaths in Great Britain are the greatest expression of what it means to be a civilised and decent society, and their ruthless determination to impose abortion.
These same metropolitan classes endlessly lecture the Northern Irish, telling them to “bury sectarianism” and “work things out together”. But when Northern Ireland’s population do speak with one voice, they are treated with utter contempt, with patronising ministers describing them as “Victorian”.
One hundred per cent of those voting to change the laws represented constituencies from outside Northern Ireland, while 100 per cent of Northern Ireland MPs who were present voted against it.
From across the community, Northern Irish peers spoke with a united voice against the Bill; and when it last voted on this issue in 2016, the Assembly opposed any change to abortion laws by a wide margin.
You might assume that anyone wishing to adjust the law would begin, as a matter of due process, with a public consultation with the people of Northern Ireland. But no such consultation has taken place.
The Government even rejected a proposal to consult members of the Assembly, all duly elected, to establish whether there would be a majority in favour of changing the law. Not only did it disregard the elected representatives, it ignored the 20,000 people – a significant turnout given the small population – who stood this month in a dignified anti-abortion vigil outside Stormont, the seat of the Northern Irish Assembly.
Never mind the two thirds of women and 70 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds in Northern Ireland who said in a ComRes poll that they completely opposed abortion laws being imposed by Westminster.
Never mind the 100,000 emails and tens of thousands of postcards sent to MPs and Assembly members demanding that they reject the Bill. Perhaps some of those writing were among the 100,000 alive today because Westminster didn’t impose abortion on them in 1967.
Westminster sneers at the people of Northern Ireland who, like the Five Fishes in The Children of Men, have had the temerity to resist attempts to export anti-child laws to their culture.
To add insult to injury, amendments that should have been ruled outside the Bill’s scope were selected and then doctored by the Government to give force to the abortion provisions in the House of Commons. Just 17 minutes were spent debating the new amendment, which is now the law in Northern Ireland. Contrast that with the 700 hours devoted to the Hunting Act, which banned fox-hunting. No wonder the political classes are now held in such disdain.
Westminster had never sought to legislate on abortion since the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921. In 1967 Parliament dealt with this life-and-death issue in a rather more respectful way. Northern Ireland’s different way of life was upheld when legislators specifically excluded Northern Ireland from the Abortion Act.
Almost 30 years later, at a meeting which I attended at Downing Street, John Major agreed that abortion laws should be the prerogative of a power-sharing, devolved Assembly.
This latest, dangerous direct-rule precedent should worry the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. Instead of which Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, told her Westminster MPs that her Scottish National Party would vote for the Bill and not abstain as it had indicated it would, right up until the night before the vote.
What will be the consequences of this disregard for devolution and contempt for the people of Northern Ireland?
If the Assembly and Executive are not re-established by October 21, one of the most extreme abortion laws in the world will be imposed on the region. This could allow for the ending of unborn lives on demand, for any reason, up to 28 weeks.
The Northern Ireland Office has itself admitted that “much further work is required before we are in place to deliver on this duty if it comes into effect”.
Regardless of your views on abortion, this is extremely disturbing. The Government and its allies at Westminster have rushed through a wretched piece of law-making as if it was emergency legislation, and for months on end there will be no regulations to oversee this multimillion-pound Wild West abortion industry.
In 40 years in Parliament I have never witnessed Government ministers doing anything so irresponsible as this.
As a consequence, Northern Ireland would go from a jurisdiction in which an estimated 100,000 people are alive today because of pro-life laws, to a jurisdiction where a baby in the womb could potentially be aborted right up to seven months – four weeks later than in Great Britain and 16 weeks later than in the Republic of Ireland.
This change in law would legalise sex-selective abortion; disability selective abortion for cleft lip, club foot and Down’s syndrome; twin abortions (selecting one to live and one to die); and partial-birth abortions. There will also be no law preventing babies born alive after an abortion being left to die.
This is just the beginning; it gets worse.
There would be no restrictions on where abortions could be performed, raising the possibility of mobile abortion clinics. Young girls would be able to get abortions without their parents’ consent. There would be no requirement that a doctor must be involved.
There would be no consideration period for women, allowing for fast-tracked or “lunch hour” abortions. There would be no law to help prevent boyfriends from coercing a woman into having an abortion.
Indeed, the Government has been unclear how these arrangements will be compliant with the Istanbul Convention, to which we are a signatory, and which requires us to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence.
No one has been able to say how the health and safety of women will be protected after October 21 until the promised “new framework” which is said to be coming in March 2020.
There would be no explicit conscientious objection protections in law for pro-life doctors and medical professionals who oppose abortion for ethical reasons. There would be no provision for independent counselling for women seeking an abortion.
And, for potentially up to 28 weeks’ gestation, there would also be no pain relief given to babies during abortions. Think about it: a baby can be born and survive at 22 weeks gestation and soon, in Northern Ireland, it may be possible for a further six weeks to kill, cruelly and painfully, the same baby, if it’s in the womb.
The only way this barbaric legislation can now be stopped is if Sinn Féin and the DUP reconvene the Executive and Assembly before October 21. And at present, there is no indication that they will do so.
Sinn Féin voters and members of the Assembly should reflect on the brave actions of Peadar Tóibín, an Irish politician who left Sinn Féin when it refused to respect his right to speak against abortion. The Teachta Dála (Irish MP) is now leader of the new Aontú party. With his deputy, Dr Anne McCloskey, an elected councillor in Northern Ireland, he is championing a pro-life republicanism.
The October deadline is looming. If Northern Ireland’s leaders fail to act this Westminster diktat will become the law – and The Children of Men will be another chapter closer to becoming reality.
Lord Alton of Liverpool is an independent crossbench peer. Visit davidalton.net
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