Across the street from Belfast’s Grand Opera House, where a glossy poster of eight naked women was promoting a forthcoming production, a series of altogether more shocking images was adorning a number of the placards of the 300 pro-life campaigners protesting at the opening of the first private clinic offering abortions in Northern Ireland.
The Opera House would rarely, if ever, have seen such a diverse cast as the one assembled in its shadow in Great Victoria Street where ex-British National Party members, Free Presbyterian ministers, priests, and ex-Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries stood together behind police barriers and in front of a tiny knot of pro-choice supporters who ran the gauntlet of the anti-abortion protesters.
The 20 pro-choice supporters — who were guarded by police — had one banner between them.
In contrast, the pro-life supporters had scores of placards, flags and posters.
The pictures of bloody foetuses were not for the faint-hearted and attracted criticism from passers-by and even from supporters who thought they deflected from the arguments against the arrival of the controversial Marie Stopes clinic in the centre of Belfast.
One of the graphic posters was draped on the buggy in which Alice Kernaghan (21) had brought her baby son Blair to the protest. She said: “I know the pictures shock people but sometimes you just have to show them the reality of abortion.”
Her father, Jim Dowson, was at the front of the protesters with his banner for his UK Life League. Scots-born Dowson, who lives in north Down, is a former Orangeman who once acted as the British National Party’s main fundraiser and campaign organiser.
He said: “It’s marvellous that Catholics and Protestants have come here to unite in such a beleaguered city where we’ve had over 30 years of the Troubles. So Marie Stopes has done one thing — it has brought communities here together.”
Dowson’s presence was clearly not welcomed by several other pro-life organisations whose members chided journalists for talking to him.
Dowson said: “If it takes five years, if it takes 10 years to close this clinic down, we will still be here.” His banner wasn’t there at lunchtime.
Dun Laoghaire man Daire Fitzgerald — who stood for the Christian Solidarity movement in the Republic’s elections — was the first person to arrive for the protest and he was carrying an ‘Ulster Says No’ to abortion placard.
Another southern protester travelled even further to show her opposition to abortion and she brought with her what she called a blanket of love — embroidered with 32 memorials from mothers to their children
who died before birth.
“They’ve re-claimed their children and given them a name, in some cases 25 years after they rejected the baby,” said Grainne Conroy from Mayo.
“Abortion is the most divisive thing ever to come to this island. Mother Teresa said it was the last frontier and the biggest threat to world peace. I agree with her and to me there is no evidence that killing a child will ever save a mother’s life and indeed can cause the mother even greater trauma,” she added.
Anne Wilson from Finaghy agreed. She said: “I think abortion is murder by mutilation of the unborn child. I personally know women who are still affected by their abortions.”
As Catholics said decades of the Rosary, other protesters sang hymns.
And Free Presbyterians waved placards with quotes from the Bible.
Rev David McIlveen said: “I believe Marie Stopes is coming here in a disingenuous way. It is not providing a service that is not already here and it is a challenge to the law on abortion.”
Mr McIlveen shook hands with prominent Catholic cleric Fr Tim Bartlett who was also there to support the ‘dignified’ protest against the clinic.
“I have a fundamental problem with the idea that any private medical facility can open here without any regulation. We need clarity,” he said.
Fr Bartlett was wary however of the small number of protesters who displayed photographs of aborted babies. “Gory pictures, while they tell the truth of certain aspects of abortion, in a public setting aren’t always the most helpful way of getting the message across.”
At 1pm there was no fanfare, no ribbon-cutting or unveiling of signs to say that the clinic had opened.
But that was also the time Precious Life organiser Bernie Smyth claimed Marie Stopes was already on its way out of business.
News of the intervention by the Attorney General John Larkin had reached the protesters. And Bernie Smyth grabbed a microphone to tell her cheering followers above the din of car horns sounding their support: “We can celebrate today that Marie Stopes’ days are numbered.”
Mr Larkin who is the chief legal adviser to the Stormont Executive wrote to the justice committee inviting them to investigate the operations of the clinic and offering to act as their counsel.
Bernie Smyth said: “I am pleased that the Attorney General has got involved. Justice must be done and I am convinced the authorities will uphold the rights of children here, born and unborn.”
Tracey McNeill, the UK and Europe director of Marie Stopes international, has repeatedly insisted that her organisation won’t break the law here which forbids abortion in all but a small number of circumstances.
She was clearly surprised that John Larkin had entered the debate.
She added: “I would welcome dialogue with him. I want to run a service which is completely transparent and works within the law.” Former PUP leader Dawn Purvis who is director of the new clinic said support for the new clinic had been “inspiring”.
On her doorstep, the pro-choice supporters from the newly-formed Support Marie Stopes organisation said they welcomed the clinic.
Jenny McEneaney, from Carryduff, said: “We are here to give a voice to the people who are pro-choice in Northern Ireland who would otherwise be silenced by this very vocal anti-choice movement today.”
Grant McParland, who is also from Carryduff, said: “I am just here to support women’s right to choose.
“It’s important that message gets across.”
Meanwhile Bernie Smyth and her supporters were reflecting on what they regarded as a ‘job well done’ outside the clinic.
And she revealed that her organisation may set up their own facilities to help women in distress: “We are in the process of setting up a crisis pregnancy centre as an alternative to the clinic to ensure that our women are given all the support they need to protect their lives and the lives of unborn children.”