Northern Ireland: London calling

MPs haven’t given up on introducing abortion and gay marriage to the region

Say “the Northern Ireland problem” to followers of British politics, and they are likely to think about Brexit. Do we need a customs border, and if so where should it be placed? Is there some hybrid arrangement that could satisfy all parties?

But there’s another problem – at any rate, it looks like a problem to supporters of same-sex marriage and abortion. Right now, the Northern Ireland government in Stormont is in deadlock. Under the power-sharing agreement, the major parties – the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin – must agree to work together. But since January 2017 they have been unable to do so, and are not exactly sounding conciliatory. “There is only one problem party,” said DUP leader Arlene Foster in August, “and that’s Sinn Féin.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin say that the DUP’s actions, particularly over an energy scandal, have made them impossible to work with. Northern Ireland now holds the record for the longest non-functioning peacetime government in modern history.

Thus Westminster is playing a sort of caretaker role in overseeing Irish affairs – and some MPs have seen an opportunity. Two Labour MPs, Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn, are campaigning for Westminster to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, where it is limited to the most severe cases of risk to the mother’s life. Creasy and McGinn are also calling for Westminster to bring in same-sex marriage for the region.

You don’t have to be pro-life to feel uneasy about this. Questions as momentous as abortion and marriage belong, you would think, to devolved government in Belfast rather than to MPs in London. So the DUP argue, and Theresa May has tended to agree – perhaps in part because her majority depends on them.

Polls indicate that Northern Ireland leans towards the same view, at least on the abortion question. According to ComRes, 47 per cent think it “would undermine the devolution settlement” if Westminster imposed a view which Stormont wouldn’t agree with. Only 30 per cent disagree.

Last week, Creasy and McGinn tried to move an amendment to a Northern Ireland Bill. The amendment would have obliged the UK government to declare that Northern Irish law on marriage and abortion is against “human rights”. This would then have guided policy in the region. After the House of Commons clerks rejected the amendment as outside the scope of the Bill, the two MPs withdrew it and tried something softer: a requirement for the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, to “issue guidance” on abortion and marriage. This passed by 207 votes to 117.

It’s a somewhat symbolic victory, but it came in the same week as MPs backed a Bill (also largely symbolic, as it won’t become law) to decriminalise abortion. Pro-choice campaigners will feel they have momentum.

Creasy, McGinn and their allies – who include Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, and Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson – do not see the devolution obstacle as especially significant. For them, it is about non-negotiable human rights. As Creasy put it in a Huffington Post interview, “The absence of an Assembly cannot be used an excuse to ignore the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland – whether their right to marry who they want and have it recognised, or to choose to have an abortion if they wish.”

In 1854, as the potato famine ravaged Ireland, the senior civil servant Sir Charles Trevelyan voiced a popular school of thought in London: “The judgment of
God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated.” Progressive Englishmen may not believe in divine judgment any more, but they do believe in History. And once again, they suspect Irish citizens may need a little help to be on the right side of it.