Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Still much political tennis to be played over abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland

Arlene Foster
Arlene Foster
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Arlene Foster chose a good day to be sat in the royal box at Wimbledon. Watching Serena Williams (twice) and Andy Murray must have been infinitely preferable to witnessing the demolition of her party's policies on same-sex marriage and abortion a few miles away at Westminster.

Devolution became disposable as Westminster MPs, by crushing majorities, backed the legalisation of same-sex marriage and abortion. While DUP MPs fulminated, Canute-like, legalisation has appeared inevitable for same-sex marriage and probable for abortion for some time.

Given that there won't be an Executive formed before October 21 - what possible incentive is there now for Sinn Fein to return in the meantime? - the question is how quickly the Northern Ireland Secretary introduces the legislation to finalise what the Labour MP Conor McGinn has started? Karen Bradley and her predecessor James Brokenshire have had 'flexible' interpretations of the law in the past. That's why we haven't had an Assembly election since March 2017. And there's still a search party out looking for the Irish Language Act, lost since 2006.

The ludicrously titled Restoration of Executive Bill that went through Parliament yesterday gave the Secretary of State potentially until January 13 next year before calling an Assembly election - and who would bet against a further extension? If the Government legislates this year to allow same-sex marriage, it will be doing so while devolution is still formally in place. It's just that the devolved institutions are not currently functioning. Anyone think of a name for direct rule which isn't called direct rule, please?

There seems little sense in Government foot-dragging on same-sex marriage. The only conceivable barrier to quick legislation would be desperately close Brexit votes in which the Government, led we assume by Boris Johnson, needed DUP support. Johnson himself is a social liberal, with no interest in DUP opposition to same-sex marriage or abortion. Johnson's warmth towards the DUP was a product of leadership ambition - the first politician ever to launch a leadership bid at another party's conference - and will soon be a political necessity given parliamentary arithmetic, notwithstanding genuine reservations over the EU backstop.

Whereas same-sex marriage is straightforward - it's either legal or illegal - on abortion, there is much to play for in terms of the eventual legislation. The time limit for abortions in the South is only 12 weeks, other than in exceptional cases. It would be odd if Sinn Fein supported a longer time limit - a 24-week UK policy - for the North. It is also far from evident that the Northern Ireland public wants a 24-week limit. Yet the argument from pro-abortion Westminster MPs was to allow the same access to abortion UK-wide. Presumably the DUP will attempt to keep abortion time limits as tight as possible - and the European average is only 12 weeks - but the party might have little say, 10 voices among 650 at Westminster.

For the DUP, the looming removal of chunks of its social and moral policies might seem like disaster. Yet there is some comfort for the party whose support is based upon a territorial and political Union, not opposition to the same-sex marital type. Slightly more DUP voters at the last general election backed same-sex marriage and abortion than were opposed. On abortion, DUP voters were more liberal than those of Sinn Fein. Vehement opposition to change comes from DUP members, a far more religious and socially conservative group than the party's voters.

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Whisper it, but there are even some senior DUP elected representatives, weary of the constant attacks on the party's social policies, who will not have lost too much sleep over what happened yesterday at Westminster. If same-sex marriage and abortion diminish as contentious political issues, the focus may switch more to the battle for the Union, where the DUP feels on more secure ground, albeit that Brexit may yet still alter that. The DUP's deputy leader Nigel Dodds wants the party defined as a Christian democratic party, not a fundamentalist sect. The politics of the Union has gradually displaced religion as core business for the DUP.

Yesterday was seismic, but there is still much political tennis to be played on legalising same-sex marriage and abortion. The DUP leader must prefer the Wimbledon variety.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool

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