IN EARLY IN EARLY MAY, I was with friends and activists at a Repeal the 8th mural in Dublin which the artists had to remove following pressure from the charities regulator. We asked a woman walking past to take our photo. A man interrupted her, told her not to help us, to put the camera down. She looked confused and we asked what was up. “You should be ashamed of yourselves. You’re disgusting”. This complete stranger spat at us.
Fast forward to 25th May and the people of the Republic of Ireland voted Yes to repeal the 8th amendment - to give women the right to access safe and legal abortion. In many ways it didn’t seem possible until it happened. Even Roscommon, the only county to vote No in the Marriage Equality Referendum of 2015, voted 57% for Yes. Rural and urban areas united to agree that Irish women could no longer be denied their human rights.
How did this incredible change in Irish politics happen? Unfortunately we cannot ignore the influence of tragedies which gained international attention. Savita Halappanavar died in Galway hospital in 2012 aged only 31 – denied the abortion which could have saved her life. When I spent that summer in Galway, people were shocked - and I found support for repealing the 8th in the most unexpected places.
The Irish Labour Party campaign reflected this - ‘Yes for Compassion’. Importantly though, this change was brought about by Irish women who shared their own stories and dedicated decades to campaigning for their rights.
Of course, the Repeal of the 8th only goes to show how isolated Northern Ireland now is on this issue. While we celebrate what women in the Republic of Ireland have achieved, we cannot forget our sisters in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland remains the only region of the UK where the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply. Instead women in Northern Ireland still have to travel to other parts of the UK or risk prosecution to seek medical care.
We are told nothing can be done – that this is an issue for devolved governments - but there has been no parliament in Northern Ireland for 17 months.
It is not fear of undermining devolved parliaments or a future Stormont which prevents Theresa May from acting - it is her fear of losing the support of the DUP in Westminster. The DUP has made it clear that even when Stormont reforms, they will use their veto to block any change to the abortion laws in Northern Ireland. As long as Theresa May continues to give the DUP power to save her weak government, the DUP will deny women their fundamental human rights.
For the future of Northern Ireland, it is essential that the devolved government of Stormont is re-established. But women in Northern Ireland are suffering now - they cannot wait for the return of Stormont to debate this issue and they most definitely cannot rely on the DUP.
We in the Labour Party Irish Society believe that access to safe and legal abortion, like marriage equality, is not the same as other devolved issues. These are fundamental human rights.
Some suggest following the Republic of Ireland and having a referendum. This argument is irrelevant in the UK. The constitution of the Republic of Ireland required a referendum to change the constitutional restrictions on abortion. Women in Ireland agreed to a referendum as it was the only constitutional way to change the law there. No such barrier exists in the UK. It is wrong and insulting to expect women to have their human rights subject to a popular vote.
We in the Labour Party must likewise not fall into this trap. We mustn’t allow the lack of a devolved government in Stormont to prevent us from standing in solidarity with our sisters in Northern Ireland. On human rights issues which are affecting the health and welfare of women in Northern Ireland, we cannot ask women to wait. We must demand that Westminster legislates now to provide access to legal and safe abortion for women in Northern Ireland – the same as for as every other woman in the UK and, soon, the Republic of Ireland.