Police should have better things to do than raiding offices for abortion pills
In a society still in thrall to male violence, the authorities need to get a sense of proportion, says Fionola Meredith
Northern Ireland has an odd relationship with the law. Some people seem to be permitted to flout it openly. Others are treated severely, held to account for suspected breaches and subjected to stringent enforcement. Whatever the reality, it often looks like one set of rules for the paramilitaries, and another for the rest of us. It's a matter of perception.
With exquisitely ironic timing, the PSNI chose International Women's Day as the ideal moment to raid the workshop of Helen Crickard, a pro-choice activist based in Belfast.
While Crickard was out attending events celebrating women's progress in the world, the police used a search warrant to force entry to her private office. They said they were looking for "drugs or instruments to cause abortion".
The PSNI didn't find any medication, either at Crickard's office or at another premises they raided on the same day, so they left empty-handed. Crickard said she felt humiliated and violated, made to feel like some kind of back-street abortionist.
Still, you can't blame the police, can you? They were just doing their job, right? Abortion pills are illegal in Northern Ireland, so the cops have a duty to uphold the law, don't they?
Place that in the context of our grotesquely dysfunctional society, which remains predicated on the threat of male violence and serious public disorder, and the picture looks rather different.
What are the cops doing bursting into women's personal workspaces in search of medication when we live in a country where children are regularly shot as a 'punishment', where businesses are routinely subjected to paramilitary threats and extortion, where fuel smuggling is rife and where huge, noxious, tyre-burning bonfires are erected year after year in gross defiance of both the law and widespread public opinion?
Since 1990, more than 500 children have been shot, beaten and maimed by paramilitary groups, while hundreds have been driven from their homes. This is no problem of the past - it's brutal, it's bloody and it's absolutely current. In 2015/2016, there were 58 casualties as a result of paramilitary-style assaults - the same number as in 2014/2015, and 10 more than the 48 recorded 10 years ago.
Can you imagine that being tolerated anywhere else in western Europe?
Given all this, haven't the police got other, more pressing priorities than rummaging through a woman's belongings to see if she's in possession of certain drugs which, while illegal in Northern Ireland, are widely and safely prescribed elsewhere?
Let's remember that the Northern Irish women who take abortion pills are generally the ones who cannot afford to travel to England for a termination. In other words, they're poor and they're desperate - and they have nowhere else to turn. Breaking the law, by ordering these pills online, seems like the best of a painfully limited set of options.
Yet our Government wants to turn these women and those that assist them into criminals, with their "crimes" potentially punishable by life imprisonment. Shoot a child in the legs, however, and you're quite likely to go scot-free.
No doubt the police and other law enforcement agencies would say that it's not an either/or situation, and that they diligently pursue anyone suspected of breaking the law, regardless of who they are. I acknowledge that there are special difficulties in mounting investigations into paramilitary activity, let alone achieving successful prosecutions, because of the climate of fearful omerta that surrounds these people - and of course because of the risk of destabilising the sacrosanct peace process.
But too often the odds are stacked against the individual. If I decided to go out and build a gargantuan bonfire so close to my neighbours' houses that it threatened to set them on fire, I imagine the authorities, backed up by the police, would insist on removing it, however much I protested about my cultural rights. Likewise if I dumped a load of tyres at a beauty spot with the intention of incinerating them and creating clouds of carcinogenic smoke.
In Northern Ireland, however, such incidents become matters of anxious, delicate negotiation, because of the fear that things could turn nasty.
The authorities tread with the utmost carefulness around the sensitivities of 'the community', and blatant infringements of the law are treated as secondary to the need for a peaceful resolution.
It is not in the public interest to spend time and money raking the country apart to look for hidden abortion pills, and it's the height of hypocrisy to do it in the name of women's safety.
As we all know, the real violations lie elsewhere.