Belfast Telegraph

So, Stella Creasy, since when did Labour care about the abortion rights of NI women?

Cynical posturing over the DUP-Tory pact belies the party's 50-year history of flip-flopping over Northern Ireland, says Aaron Edwards

Half-a-century ago the British Labour Government presided over the passing of the Abortion Act 1967.

The Liberal MP David Steel brought the Private Member's motion before the House of Commons in the mid-1960s.

Like many other parliamentarians, he was persuaded by the medical arguments, which were concerned with taking the matter out of the hands of backstreet abortionists.

Despite the heated moral and political hiatus surrounding the issue, most MPs chose to vote on the principle of minimising the risk to the health of the mother.

In Northern Ireland this medical argument immediately ran up against the moral connotations connected with the termination of pregnancies before 24 weeks.

Back then, the unionist government at Stormont refused to extend the Act to Northern Ireland.

The British Labour Party did not push the matter and instead took refuge behind a convention operating in the Westminster Parliament that prevented Northern Ireland affairs from being discussed in the house.

This suited Harold Wilson's Labour Party, which had little desire to rock the boat.

The tenor of all Westminster dealings with the unionist government was about keeping Irish affairs firmly at arm's-length, something that would contribute to the unravelling of the security situation by the end of that decade.

As a result Northern Ireland remained out of step with the rest of the United Kingdom on this important health issue, as well as many other legislative matters.

Fifty years ago the Unionist Party's principal Opposition, in the form of the pro-Union Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), lobbied the Stormont government to extend all political, social and economic legislation pertaining in Britain.

The NILP made "British rights for British citizens" the central plank in its campaign to force the Unionist Party to remain in-step with Britain.

Ironically, the British Labour Party was content to leave its sister party in the form of the NILP to deal with devolved matters at Stormont.

The year 1967 was significant, because it had earlier witnessed the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

NICRA called for the extension of Westminster legislation on employment practices, housing allocation and electoral rights.

Interestingly, the NILP had already been calling for a redistribution of what it called "citizens' rights" four years before NICRA arrived on the scene.

The difference between the NILP and the NICRA was that the local Labour Party wished to hold true to its principles of gradual change by peaceful means and a strict adherence to parliamentary democracy.

This proved untenable amid a mixture of British Labour prevarication, violence and sectarianism that drowned out the NILP's peaceful message by the late-1960s.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Labour and the Conservatives sought to contain the Northern Ireland "problem" by adopting a bipartisan approach towards the province's affairs.

Both parties were primarily motivated to stop the so-called "toxicity" of Northern Ireland politics from affecting the body politic in Britain.

This meant avoiding rocking the boat when the local sectarian parties were united on issues of common concern, including the Abortion Act.

At the same time, the fringe Left within British Labour moved the party in a green nationalist direction.

With the emergence of New Labour under Tony Blair, the party moved towards a more conciliatory position, which fully embraced the consent principle.

The shift in Labour policy encouraged many former members of the NILP to lobby for the extension of membership rights to British citizens living in Northern Ireland.

They were eventually successful in securing individual membership rights after a trade union legal challenge to the party in the early-2000s.

However, they were continually blocked from securing the redistribution of many other political, social and economic rights enjoyed by British citizens in the rest of the UK.

British Labour continued with the facade that like-minded labourists should join their new sister party in the form of the SDLP, a consistent supporter of socially conservative and gombeen-style politics.

When Labour MP Diane Abbott tabled a cross-party amendment to the Abortion Act in 2008, Gordon Brown's Labour Government defeated it.

Ms Abbott said at the time that the extension of the Act "would be to give women in Northern Ireland exactly the same rights to abortion with NHS funding that women elsewhere in Britain have".

Interestingly, Ms Abbott was supported by people like John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry. These are now senior members of the Labour shadow Cabinet.

Fast-forward to 2017 and Stella Creasy's attempt to bring another amendment to the Abortion Act before the House.

Pre-empting the prospect of defeat in the debate on the Queen's Speech, the Chancellor announced the release of funds that would support women from Northern Ireland travelling to Britain to seek access to abortion services.

Some have suggested that the threatened amendment mirrored the Biblical adage, "Let me take the speck out of your eye", when, all the time, there is a plank in your own eye.

However, it is important to recognise that this is an issue about securing British rights for British citizens living in Northern Ireland.

By arguing that it is purely a devolved matter directly affects the rights and health of women while the Assembly sits parked in cold storage.

To be sure, the issue does raise serious questions about why the Labour Party is content to turn so-called devolved matters into a political stick with which to beat its Tory-DUP opponents.

Liberal-Left commentators would be the first to chide the DUP for its socially conservative policies, but the faux outrage being expressed by a resurgent Leftist fringe is not based on a full appraisal of the facts.

British Labour would, perhaps, make better use of its time by educating its members and supporters about their own party's flip-flopping on Northern Ireland affairs over the past half-century than engaging in cynical political posturing.

As profound changes continue to transform politics in Britain and Ireland, the Labour Party might also wish to extend its hand of friendship to embattled progressive forces in Northern Ireland.

The Left-leaning Progressive Unionist Party and People Before Profit have shown more leadership on the rolling-back of austerity measures, an unconditional support for the NHS and the plight of public sector workers in this part of the United Kingdom than Labour have in the past.

In lieu of the British Labour Party organising on a "One Nation" basis, the party might consider throwing its weight behind the policies of these locally progressive forces.

This would go some way to helping to improve the lives of all working people in Northern Ireland.

  • Dr Aaron Edwards is an historian, writer and academic. His most recent book is UVF: Behind The Mask (Merrion Press)

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