Belfast Telegraph

David Gordon: To pile in on the DUP now about abortion seems glib and opportunistic

By David Gordon

Sometimes it only takes one tweet to sum up a complex story of law, morality and some liberal grandstanding. Just such a moment came yesterday from Andree Murphy, Belfast-based columnist and increasingly regular voice on the airwaves.

Left-wing journalist Paul Mason had tweeted: "What would be a good month for tens of thousands of us to march thru Belfast defending abortion rights? Suggestions anyone?"

Andree's reply was brief: "Anytime in the last 50 years comrade - no hurry."

Paul Mason's call to action over abortion law came amid the ongoing furore over the planned Tory-DUP link-up at Westminster.

Abortion is one of the issues Labour-supporters have seized on to lambast the DUP and seek to embarrass Theresa May and her party.

That's legitimate politics.

But they do leave themselves open to criticism on two fronts.

The first - as encapsulated in that Murphy zinger - is that abortion law here is not a new issue.

Campaigners on both sides of the debate may be less than impressed at this apparent new surge of interest.

The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland.

For most of that time, we have lived under direct rule from Westminster. Successive Tory and Labour administrations opted not to bring us into line with Great Britain - Labour, incidentally, being Paul Mason's party, in case you hadn't noticed.

Abortion opponents will argue that this refusal to legislate reflected the deeply held views of a broad swathe of public opinion here.

Supporters of a law change will say direct rule ministers repeatedly bottled out of taking on clerics and other powerful conservative forces.

The upshot is that abortion law remains much more restrictive here than in GB.

It is also, of course, much more restrictive on the other side of the border.

Abortion - contrary to what some commentators still suggest - is not illegal in Northern Ireland.

It is permitted, but only to save the life of the expectant mother or if there is a permanent or serious long-term risk to her mental or physical health.

The second point to make is that the DUP is by no means solely responsible for the law here being more restrictive.

To pile in on the DUP about this in the last few days sounds to some sceptical ears a little glib and opportunistic.

It is undoubtedly true that the DUP has been and remains a vociferous opponent of the 1967 Act being extended.

The very same can be said of the SDLP, sister party of the Labour Party. Its manifesto for last week's general election reiterated this policy.

Sinn Fein takes the same stance, telling this newspaper in February this year: "Sinn Fein is not in favour of abortion and we opposed and voted against the extension of the 1967 Act to the North, when it was proposed in the Assembly."

Alliance and the UUP have no policy, and leave it to individual politicians to decide. A survey last year showed differing views among their Assembly representatives.

Only the Greens and People Before Profit - with three MLAs between them - have party policy positions in favour of major liberalisation of the law. The TUV is very much in the anti camp.

Again, it will be argued that this Assembly breakdown reflects public opinion against abortion.

The counter view is that this is nonsense, as elections here are not about abortion law.

The point remains that this is not solely or even mainly a DUP issue. Not that you would think it from some of the recent outpourings of the commentariat.

Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore yesterday wrote that Theresa May is "bartering over the bodies of women to maintain power".

But how is that true?

It seems highly unlikely that any Prime Minister would ever contemplate imposing a three-line whip on MPs in a bid to limit abortion in England, Scotland and Wales. Certainly not at the behest of the DUP in a hung Parliament. The DUP are not daft enough to ask, either.

As for Northern Ireland, what would the chances ever be of a Tory Secretary of State pushing through a major liberalising law change over the heads of the Assembly - even if the Assembly was mothballed?

Would that be on the agenda even if there was no DUP deal and Theresa May had secured the massive majority she craved?

If not, then whatever deal is struck will not have any relevance for the legal situation here.

Suzanne Moore also wrote in her Guardian column: "It is also important to remember that Labour's sister party in Northern Ireland, the SDLP, takes the same hardline stance on abortion, and I would hope to see Jeremy Corbyn address this."

I'm sure the SDLP leader is waiting by the phone.

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