Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: DUP supporters more liberal than Sinn Fein counterparts on the reform of abortion law

Following the Republic's landmark referendum, Fionola Meredith says it's time Northern Ireland's top party listened to its voters

If Theresa May was inclined to step in and save the women of Northern Ireland from the repressive, Victorian-era law that governs abortion here, Sammy Wilson of the DUP was having none of it. In a message to the Prime Minister following the Republic's referendum he said: "Just because there are siren voices from the liberals and the left-wing at Westminster she should not bow to that."

In fact, the calls for urgent reform of a regime which, according to a UN committee, systematically violates women's rights in Northern Ireland, came from across the political spectrum, including many high-ranking female Tories.

But Mrs May, despite being a self-declared feminist, had no intention of bowing to those begging her to do the decent thing. She was too busy bending over backwards to accommodate the notoriously anti-abortion DUP since these are the people who keep her in power.

For the PM to tell us that the issue should be dealt with by our own politicians, through our own special process, is callous, dismissive and insulting given that we do not have a functioning Assembly.

She is flagrantly disregarding her duty to protect the human rights of UK citizens, while waving the democratic flag of devolution as a diversion and an excuse. It's a poor one, easily seen through: human rights are not a devolved matter and she could certainly take action if she chose to do so.

Yet, even when Stormont does eventually return, it will be to a transformed political and ethical landscape. The referendum result in the south, that strong, full-throated 'yes' to repeal - from young and old, city and country, men and women - has powerful implications for the whole island.

We aren't living in the same place that we were when Stormont collapsed in January 2017.

People like DUP MP Ian Paisley may continue to claim that "the settled will of the people (of Northern Ireland) has been to afford protections to the unborn life and protect the life of the mother".

But the truth is that we have actually been travelling in a more open-minded, enlightened direction for some time. The 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, which is the most comprehensive look at public attitudes to abortion to date, found that 63% of people - exactly the same figure as in the Republic - think that "it is a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion".

And the public is often a step ahead of the politicians. For example, research by ARK, NI's social policy information hub, based on the above-mentioned survey, shows that more than three out of four DUP supporters (77%) think abortion should be legal here if a woman is pregnant as a result of rape and does not want to continue the pregnancy.

So, attitudes to abortion among DUP supporters are more liberal, at least in this instance, than those who support Sinn Fein, 72% of whom agreed with the statement about abortion and rape. It doesn't fit the usual narrative, does it?

Sinn Fein loves to pose as the ultimate social justice warriors: witness Michelle O'Neill and Mary-Lou McDonald brandishing their sign saying 'the North is next' following the Republic's vote for repeal.

If McDonald really cared about northern women with crisis pregnancies she wouldn't be opposed to Westminster legislating on abortion, so that terminations could be carried out at home. Instead she wants them to travel south and access the new services there. In Sinn Fein's cold and calculating hands, reproductive rights turn into just another weapon in the cultural war for Irish unity.

And, of course, it suits Sinn Fein's agenda to use the DUP and its followers as a stodgy, regressive foil to its own heroic, swashbuckling championing of progressive causes. But again the ARK research paints a different picture, at least when it comes to party supporters.

People who support Sinn Fein (and also the SDLP) were the least likely to say that abortion should definitely be legal in the seven possible scenarios posed in the Life and Times survey.

Meanwhile, DUP supporters believe that abortion should definitely or probably be legal in six out of the seven scenarios, thus indicating a higher level of support for reform of abortion law than Sinn Fein or SDLP voters.

The Republic's referendum was an earthquake. It gave us all a seismic jolt. As the dust settles and a realigned landscape begins to emerge, the DUP should start listening to its own followers.

They are pointing out the way to a more compassionate future.

Belfast Telegraph

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