Repealing History

Anti-abortion flyer. Ireland, May 2018.

Ireland’s landslide vote to overturn its ban on abortion should enliven the left to shake off its pessimism about the future. No matter how screwed up it might be, the world can still be turned right-side up.

Soon after Theresa May made it known that she was opposed to attempts to lift the ban in Northern Ireland. The argument goes that the issue is for Stormont to decide and not Westminster, it would be dangerous to pretend otherwise.

This was dishonesty at its purest. The Northern Ireland Assembly has been in gridlock for over a year, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are the human shield standing between the Conservative government and almost certain defeat at the ballot box.

If the British government wanted to allow abortion in the province, the best way would be to hold a referendum on the issue and this would not violate the region’s devolved status. But this would threaten the Tory-DUP pact keeping May in office (though not in power).

This is an old story. The Blair government side-lined the abortion issue as part of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Labour MP Harriet Harman argued that the rights of women could not be allowed to jeopardise a peace deal.

What we call Northern Ireland today was carved out of the body of Ireland during the civil war. The Ulster Unionists demanded the support of the British government and the concentration of Protestant settlers could not be easily ignored. Abortion was one of the issues left to the Christian right to decide.

When the UK legalised abortion in 1967, the legalisation only applied to mainland Britain and not to the Six Counties. The Wilson government decriminalised homosexuality and abolished the death penalty at the same time. More than fifty years on, abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland.

Who’s backward now?

One of the amusing consequences of the vote is that the Irish Republic now looks like a much more open and even secular place than Northern Ireland. It has long been the argument of those opposed to Irish reunification that the south was a backward place overrun by priests and superstitions.

It goes without saying that the vote is a huge victory for Irish women. I would argue it’s even greater than the 2015 referendum on marriage equality, which, however important, can be reconciled with a kind of big tent conservatism. Indeed, the best way to preserve the institution of marriage is to expand its scope. The same can’t simply be said for the end of the abortion ban.

Of course, the conservatives will dress this up as a defeat for the country’s rich Catholic heritage. We shouldn’t overlook this point. After all, this rich heritage includes the Magdalene laundries, the repression of homosexuality, censorship and child sexual abuse. This is on top of the deaths of countless women as a direct result of the abortion ban.

As much as the Roman Catholic tradition has admirable traits when it comes to its social teachings, we mustn’t be dewy-eyed about the suffering its institutions have wrought down through the generations. So the referendum is a triumph over this dark side of Catholic history, ending the reign of hypocrisy.

After all, the Church’s preferred method of abortion was either the knitting-needle or outsourcing the procedure to the nearest place where it was legal. The latter for whoever can afford it, the former for whoever can’t. This was a disgrace for any organisation claiming to have a social conscience.

Imagined communities

If nations are just imagined communities, the Northern Irish loyalists saw themselves as British and the Tory Party was quite happy to let them think so for as long as the province could be kept quiet, especially as it could rely on Unionist support during times of crisis.

The Orange state saw its legitimacy resting on its ability to defend Protestant rule, and preserve the heritage of settler colonialism, from Irish nationalism. The Unionists in Stormont maintained a firm hold on the region, not just through the violence of the state, but through religious dogma and private property as well.

Oddly, settler rule tends to bring out the worst in Protestantism. Whether it’s the American South, the Six Counties or apartheid South Africa, somehow the Evangelicals, the Presbyterians and the Calvinists were never far away.

In this way, the Ulster loyalism was bound up with the Christian right and the abortion ban was a necessary part of the ruling order and not just an extra added on for kicks. Yet the restriction of abortion rights guaranteed large families among the Catholic poor.

This may have reinforced the need to find ways to keep Catholics out of the electoral system. The right to vote had to be linked to private property to maintain the status quo. And this is exactly why the Ulster question still has not been settled almost a century after partition.

The truth is legitimacy is all about time, and the 1920s are not ancient history on the streets of Belfast. The British hoped that they could ensure things wouldn’t change by keeping the Six Counties quiet. Not much has changed in that regard, except history has an odd habit of surprising you.


Photograph courtesy of the National Party. Published under a Creative Commons license.