Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Why, in spite of the huge vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment, there is still no guaranteed majority for relaxing the law in Northern Ireland

A Conservative government that needs DUP votes to cling on to power is unlikely to impose a referendum on the province, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

The great and good tend to sniff at the wisdom of deciding important issues by means of a referendum. How can ordinary people be expected to understand all the complexities? Best leave it to the experts to decide what's in the country's best interests.

The joy that comes from expressions of a collective desire for change proves them wrong. We should know that better than anyone.

More than eight in ten in Northern Ireland turned out to vote in the referendum on the Belfast Agreement, and Ulster said Yes by a margin of more than two to one.

Twice now in recent years, the Irish Republic has experienced that same feeling of relief, first when voting to legalise same-sex marriage in 2015, and now by repealing the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which effectively outlawed abortion in even the hardest cases.

As a result, the Irish government now has an unchallengeable mandate to legislate for abortions on request up to 12 weeks, and even beyond that on the say so of doctors. Ireland has gone from having Europe's strictest abortion laws to one of the most permissive.

It would be difficult to overstate the symbolic importance of last Friday's vote. Ireland has had a long and fractious relationship with the issue of unwanted pregnancy; future generations will now know those bitter abortion wars as history rather than lived experience.

The ban on termination of pregnancy was also one of the traits for which the country was best known abroad. That's why the referendum result made headlines around the world. Pope Francis will arrive in August to a very different country than the one John Paul II left in 1979.

Yes had been expected to win, but the scale of the victory, with two thirds of the population voting for repeal, was game-changing. It certainly made a mockery of all the earnest analysis during the campaign about which side was winning. In the end, posters and Facebook ads and TV debates didn't seem to matter at all.

Most people, polling data suggests, had made up their minds long in advance, tired of the endless squabbles over female fertility, and touched by the personal stories of young girls who'd been the victims of rape, or women whose babies were suffering from fatal foetal abnormalities which meant they couldn't survive outside the womb, being forced to travel to England to have terminations. They could see no way to help them without removing the Eighth Amendment in its entirety.

The balance which the Constitution tried to maintain between the rights of the mother and the unborn had simply fallen apart in the face of reality. Compelled to make a choice between irreconcilable rights, voters decided that it was no longer feasible to force women to carry pregnancies to term against their will.

Moral issues are not settled by majority votes; but politics, whilst it ought to be informed by ethics, has to deal first in the realm of the possible rather than the ideal. Irish women were not going to stop having abortions, whatever the result of Friday's vote. The widespread sense of relief when the result came in was palpable.

That doesn't mean those who campaigned and voted for No are wrong and should now slink away and shut up. Donegal may have been the only Dail constituency to vote No (despite the headlines, the county as a whole voted Yes) but a third of the electorate nationwide, more than 700,000 people, did vote against allowing abortions on demand.

That's equivalent to the population of the entire Belfast metropolitan area. These people are now unrepresented by any major party.

Where the result at the weekend leaves Northern Ireland is another matter entirely. In rapid succession, the South has now legalised same-sex marriage and abortion, leaving this small patch of land as the one place on these islands where both remain outlawed.

Never ones to miss a trick, Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald and her deputy Michelle O'Neill were pictured at the weekend holding up a sign declaring: "The North is next".

It's not as simple as that, of course. The wording of the referendum pledged that, in future, "provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy". In other words, voters agreed to leave the details of abortion to elected politicians. It could be argued that this is what already happens in Northern Ireland, which is why it remains illegal.

All DUP Assembly members are against liberalising the law on abortion. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood supported a Yes vote in the Republic, and the party recently opted at a special conference in Maghera to allow votes on abortion to be a matter of conscience, but the party is still officially pro-life. The UUP likewise accepts the issue as a matter of personal conscience. As for Sinn Fein, its supporters in Northern Ireland are significantly more pro-life than the leadership or southern opinion. Only Alliance and other smaller parties are firmly pro-choice.

There is then no guaranteed majority for softening the law here and no immediately obvious pathway to doing so. There would be something immensely satisfying about seeing laws on same-sex marriage and abortion imposed from above in Westminster, but what are the chances that a UK government which still needs DUP support will have the courage to end its hands-off approach and practise some direct rule?

Polls do consistently show that the public here is much more liberal than their political representatives. A Belfast Telegraph poll last year found only 29 per cent of people were opposed to allowing abortions in a wider range of circumstances; in 2016, another study found a clear majority in favour of abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Local politicians are definitely out of touch with ordinary people. Even a majority of DUP supporters want to legalise same-sex marriage, for example. Christian traditionalists in Arlene Foster's party would no doubt argue that candidates stood, and won, on a manifesto which couldn't have been more bluntly anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage.

That's true, but it's simply another illustration of the peculiar nature of elections in Northern Ireland, where voting for a party does not automatically imply support for all, or even most, of its actual policies. It's more an expression of tribal allegiance.

The only way of breaking that deadlock when it comes to issues outside the green/orange straitjacket is through a referendum. Who knows, it might even do local politics a power of good to find things on which we can agree or disagree that have nothing whatsoever to do with those old sectarian rituals.

Belfast Telegraph

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