Fionnuala O Connor: Political factors in north could see abortion reform momentum drain away

<span style="font-family: Arial, sans-serif; ">Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald celebrate the referendum result</span>
Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald celebrate the referendum result

The laws of politics suggest this place should be headed for fairly prompt abortion law reform, to catch up with what used to be Holy Catholic Ireland.

But the momentum may drain away thanks to the weakness of Theresa May, the professed fundamentalism of a dominant section of unionism, plus Sinn Féin game-playing.

Unionists of at least one stripe object almost as strongly to the title ‘The North’ in those photographs of Sinn Féin’s beaming leading women brandishing the slogan, as they do to northern women gaining the right to choose. Ulster Unionism’s foremost ‘liberal’ Doug Beattie is irked that what he respectfully calls the DUP’s ‘conscience’ is ‘used to paint unionism in deeply illiberal colours that it does not deserve...’

But when it means standing with Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill, Ulster Unionism will not dissent. Beattie says unionists ‘can and do believe in abortion reform and same sex marriage’. Now is their moment, in the name of British pluralism, to grab the microphone. They could start by supporting the few obstetricians and other medics brave enough to call for abortion provision at home. That would give some solidity at last to ‘civic unionism’, otherwise as substantial as the Catholic unionist unicorn.

There is no such entity as Northern Ireland society. The population feels, sometimes sympathises, with shifts in the western world but every major issue of contention is complicated if not crushed in the narrow shared ground. Brave and resolute northern feminists have fought for decades for reproductive rights, encouraged by polls that show majority support for liberalisation, as for equal marriage. The political world maintains its own atmosphere.

The DUP may draw votes now from across the Protestant community but on social issues party representatives and activists remain disproportionately dominated by Free Presbyterianism. The result is a politics almost proudly resistant to change.

Meanwhile, not uniformly, northern Catholics have moved away from the narrow, church-centred society of old. Identity no longer requires religiosity. The oldest may balk at developments in the south but political leadership is alert, agile. The Sinn Féin of Adams-McGuinness moved early to more liberal stances on both same sex marriage and abortion, the latter mumbled at first. Then ballot-box threats failed to materialise. Mary Lou has updated the mixture of discipline with a dash of tolerance (to hold on to Peadar Toibín) and the choreography of an ard fheis between referendum and the test of Dáil legislation.

The SDLP are left arguing with themselves, with steadily fewer people paying much attention. Colum Eastwood said he would vote Yes with reservations. The loudest reaction came from Bernie Smith.

How the world has turned. In the early Troubles republicans were led by bitter-enders fighting old wars. It was the SDLP that had energy, leadership; the hugely influential John Hume with others rethinking strategies to counter partition. Now Sinn Féin is the unchallenged leader, increasingly significant in southern politics, open to social change and attracting the young, once Hume’s forte.

Despite some able young politicians the SDLP resemble the old republican caricature of them, the party of older middle-class Catholics for whom the Church is still important, respectable; Alban Maginness, the permanently baffled Alasdair McDonnell.

Most Fianna Fáil TDs may have been No supporters despite Micheál Martin. Watch them somersault. Is the SDLP up to that, or are its young hobbled by the deadweight of the aged and cranky? Fianna Fáil is already officially aligning with Sinn Féin on southern abortions for northern women while the government voices proper deference to northern devolution. A newly liberated public mood might do for that deference. Stormont is non-existent.

Westminster with a flick of the wrist provided abortions for northern women on the NHS; the DUP stayed schtum. Can a similar manoeuvre provide law reform here, while Arlene and Nigel at least hold their tongues? It must be a low May priority in the devolution/no devolution/Brexit political soup, against the background of car-crash negotiations against the clock.

This place may have ducked a Savita-like tragedy so far. Many have quaked to hear terrible experiences - like that of Sarah Ewart, pleading now that the north must not be left in limbo. Breedagh Hughes, Gráinne Teggart and Goretti Horgan are valiant as any southern campaigners. But we lack the sense of society, and political architecture, to imitate the south. Rescue has to come from outside.

By lining up with the DUP to say no Sinn Féin gives London cover. Will the two governments duck responsibility in the name of a failed Stormont?

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