Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: If Northern Ireland is an equal part of the UK, why then is life so different here?

The DUP can't have it both ways with leaving the EU, abortion and same-sex marriage, says Fionola Meredith

Labour’s Stella Creasy
Labour’s Stella Creasy
Sarah Ewart

Blood is probably the most powerful substance for a politician to invoke, as Enoch Powell knew all too well. It summons up deep, visceral images of homeland, motherland, territory, sovereignty, life and death.

To speak, as the DUP leader Arlene Foster has done in the context of the Brexit negotiations, of a "blood red line" amplifies the word still further.

This is far more than a line in the sand, a point beyond which you are not prepared to go. This is a line that is so vital and defended that it is symbolically guaranteed by blood, the very stuff of which each one of us is made.

Under no circumstances, the DUP insists, must Northern Ireland be treated any differently to the rest of the UK. We are all as one, for ever and ever, equal constituent parts of the same precious union.

"I am a unionist. I believe in the union of the United Kingdom, all four elements of the United Kingdom," Mrs Foster told EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

"We do not want Northern Ireland going off in a different direction from the rest of the UK."

It is a point of fundamental principle with the party, an article of faith, integral to its very essence.

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Such a Brexit battle-cry, with its bullish overtones of 'no surrender', might sound impassioned, and no doubt resonates deeply with the party's hardcore base.

But the reality, as any fool knows, is that Northern Ireland is utterly different from the rest of the UK. Politically, culturally, socially, legally, we are at a stark remove. We're a weird little statelet, out on our own.

And the DUP, those apparently stalwart blood-defenders of UK unity, those flag-waving champions of core Britishness, are the very people who maintain that difference most trenchantly.

Corporation tax, air passenger duty, libel law: these are all areas where the DUP is perfectly happy to diverge from the rest of the UK.

Indeed, the latest issue of the satirical and investigative magazine Private Eye describes in interesting detail how the DUP blocked libel reform in Northern Ireland by resisting the extension of the Defamation Act, passed by Westminster in 2013.

But to my mind the most egregious example of the DUP's double standards is its implacable opposition to abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland.

If we are all part of one glorious and indivisible union, why are women here denied dominion over their own bodies? Why are they prevented from accessing the human rights afforded to those in the remainder of the UK?

Under the current archaic law, as the Labour MP Stella Creasy has pointed out, if you are raped in Northern Ireland, become pregnant as a result and seek a termination, you could face a longer prison sentence than your attacker.

Creasy and other Westminster politicians are currently attempting to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland by removing the Victorian-era legislation which continues to apply here.

And Belfast woman Sarah Ewart, who was forced to travel to England for a termination after being told her unborn child had no chance of survival, has now won High Court permission for a judicial review.

Meanwhile, Arlene Foster's DUP maintains an absolute distinction between the way women seeking abortions are treated in Northern Ireland - described as "cruel and inhuman" by UK human rights courts - and the way their counterparts are treated across the water. So much for "all four elements of the United Kingdom" working as one. More like one element of the UK off on its own misogynist and hyper-religious kick, in defiance of the majority will of the Northern Irish people, who have consistently supported compassionate reform.

Of course, we're also the only remaining part of the UK, and Ireland, where same-sex marriage remains illegal, again courtesy of the DUP.

No border down the middle of the Irish Sea - except the huge moralistic one that prevents gay couples from publicly formalising their commitment to one another.

These should not be snootily dismissed as "social issues", of less significance than customs regulation. They are central to the quality of people's lives.

The DUP has always enjoyed indulging in big talk, right back to the guldering days of Rev Ian Paisley. It's a primitive way of puffing themselves up and making them look larger and thus more threatening than they actually are.

Arlene Foster's blood-red line, supposedly protecting the Union, is more of the same.

But there is an invisible border dividing us off from the rest of the UK, and the DUP is instrumental in maintaining it.

Belfast Telegraph


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