‘The North is next’
‘The North is next’


The issue of women’s rights and access to abortion are now being placed alongside calls for same-sex marriage as part of an equality agenda being opposed by unionists.

Following the repeal of the constitutional block on abortion in the 26 Counties, Sinn Fein has joined with pro-abortion campaigns to demand change in the north of Ireland, now the only place in Ireland or Britain to maintain a blanket ban on terminations.

After receiving accolades from around the world for its part in the constitutional change, the Dublin government has also now said the 26 County referendum has “set the tone” for what should happen in the North.

But the DUP has said it will not be “bullied or bounced” into a change in the North’s abortion laws, making the return of the collapsed power-sharing institutions in Belfast less likely than before.

On Sunday, Sinn Fein’s Six County leader Michelle O’Neill said the North of Ireland was becoming a “backwater” on a number of issues, and that her party wanted the Stormont Assembly to legislate on abortion.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has said that women in the north should “not be left marooned” following the abortion referendum in the 26 Counties, and said new legislation would allow them access to services south of the border.

Ms McDonald said it would be unthinkable if a woman in a border town such as Dundalk could have have an abortion but a woman “up the road” in Newry could not. She said she had been “particularly struck” by the involvement of people from the Six Counties in the ‘Yes’ campaign.

“In so many ways this has been an all-Ireland conversation,” she said. “I know people came from the north came and campaigned on it - so we’ve no intention of allowing women in the north to be left marooned and left in an impossible and very often heartbreaking position.”

The issue of abortion was long thought uncontroversial in the North, with nationalists and unionists equally opposing a relaxation of the laws. But an explosion of feminist opinion in the 26 Counties has forced politicians to ‘follow the people’, according to the Sinn Fein leader, who accused the DUP of being out of step.

“There is an echo of the referendum on [same-sex] marriage equality here where we move forward to recognise people’s rights to marry who they choose and who they love,” she said.

“Now here we go again and it’s real problem particularly if unionism, or the Democratic Unionist party to be more specific, insist on holding back the tide of change.”

An eclectic protest outside Laganside courts in Belfast has drawn attention to the new campaign. Feminist activists from the socialist feminist group Rosa (Reproductive rights, against oppression, sexism and austerity) were dressed as handmaids and watched as ‘abortion pills’ were delivered by robots controlled from the Netherlands, where abortion is legal, and then swallowed by women in an act of civil disobedience. The PSNI seized the devices and the pills.

Sinn Fein said the abortion issue had also increased motivation for a Six County referendum on a united Ireland with constitutional issues gaining renewed prominence.

Speaking to ITV, Ms O’Neill said: “People who, particularly people from a unionist background who traditionally in the past wouldn’t have had this conversation about where they see themselves in the future are now having that conversation and it’s a very healthy and live debate.”

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said that there was a call for change from the same group of women who pushed for the Yes vote.

“I thought it was a most significant fact that as the result was coming in, it wasn’t Sinn Fein raising the Northern [Ireland] issue, but it spontaneously came from the same solidarity of women and sisters who have brought about this historic change.”

Ms McDonald said the referendum result means “a case for change, for protecting our health and our lives is now unanswerable”.

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