Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Arlene Foster couldn't be more wrong - abortion vote will mean a change

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said the law covering abortion is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland politicians to deal with. John Stillwell/PA.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has said the law covering abortion is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland politicians to deal with. John Stillwell/PA.

By Suzanne Breen

The Republic's landslide abortion vote leaves Northern Ireland and Malta as the states with the most restrictive legislation in Europe. But not for long, pro-choice campaigners predict.

Our abortion law is governed by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act - passed 60 years before women had the right to vote. Campaigners believe its days are numbered. Arlene Foster says the Republic's referendum will have no impact upon our law. Theoretically, she's right. In practice, she couldn't be more wrong.

A situation where women will now potentially be able to board a train to Dublin or Drogheda to have an abortion - rather than a plane to London or Liverpool - changes everything. To outsiders, the situation looks ridiculous.

Oddly, the DUP's confidence-and-supply deal with the Tories could actually make change more likely. The London media yesterday focused on Northern Ireland's anomalous position in a way they wouldn't if the DUP weren't propping up the Government.

The pressure on Theresa May is huge, not just from backbench MPs but from Cabinet ministers. Those Tories uncomfortable that their party is in bed with the DUP in the first place want action from the Prime Minister.

Last June, a threatened backbench rebellion led to a massive U-turn, giving Northern Ireland women access to NHS-funded abortions for the first time in half a century. The Government had previously argued that doing so would undermine Stormont.

The DUP is rightly pointing out that abortion is a devolved issue. But proponents for change will argue that equality and human rights aren't, and that as the sovereign power, Westminster must redress the situation.

A proposal currently gaining traction is to use the forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill to change our abortion law. An amendment could potentially decriminalise abortion. It would remove the relevant sections of the 1861 Act, leaving doctors to exercise their clinical judgment with women patients. If the Government allows a free vote, such an amendment would pass comfortably.

The DUP might be expected to threaten to bring down the Tories if they failed to issue a three-line whip. But the party notably did not make a song-and-dance of the move to give local women free NHS abortions in Britain last year.

Some observers believe that despite its public insistence that abortion is a devolved matter, some in DUP ranks may even be privately relieved if London dealt with the issue.

The party's support base has widened dramatically in recent years and opinion polls show DUP voters are much more liberal than their leaders on abortion.

The suspension of devolution and the Republic's historic vote could prove to be a perfect storm for pro-choice campaigners.

Belfast Telegraph

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