The Next PM Must Fight For Northern Irish Women's Right To Choose

Whether it's Hunt or Johnson, they must remember they are PM for my country too – and we deserve the same opportunity, freedom and choice as a girl from Glasgow, Cardiff or London.
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It’s unlikely to be at the top of the next prime minister’s domestic agenda, but either Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson will come face-to-face with the Northern Ireland abortion debate. They will have a duty to fight for the women of Northern Ireland, who have been left behind for too long.

The near-total ban on abortion remains in place in Northern Ireland, with the government showing a desire to intervene but saying they are unable to do so as health is a devolved matter for the Stormont Assembly. That reasoning cannot hold up for much longer. Stormont has been suspended for two and a half years, and there’s no sign that the latest round of talks will bring forth any viable resolution. Devolution cannot be used as an excuse when the devolved institutions are not working.

In Northern Ireland, we look to the Republic and the rest of the United Kingdom, and feel left in the dark ages. Since the abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland, pressure has been on to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland. It remains, along with the refusal to pass equal marriage legislation, the last hold of Christianity on Northern Ireland.

During this week’s leadership hustings in Belfast, Jeremy Hunt said that “if I was Northern Irish, I would want the law changed” before insisting it was a devolved matter for a restored Assembly to legislate for. His rival for No10, Boris Johnson recognised that he was “sounding like a cracked record” before repeating the usual Westminster lines about devolution.

Women from Northern Ireland currently have to travel to England and Wales for an abortion, previously having to pay for the procedure before the Government Equalities Office stepped in to provided funding after pressure from MPs in 2017. Last year, 1,053 women had to travel to England and Wales in order to access abortion services.

It’s important to note that it’s unlikely that a restored Assembly would legislate for abortion legislation. The petition of concern function – which allows a piece of legislation to be blocked by the signatures of 30 MLAs – would willingly be used by the DUP to block any such legislation. Any agreement that is reached over power sharing must include reforms to the petition of concern mechanism, if not abolishing and replacing it altogether.

There’s no clear end in sight for the latest round of talks, which began after the murder of Lyra McKee. The generation she called the “ceasefire babies” must be allowed the freedoms that were denied to our parents. If anyone should have their voices heard on this debate then it’s the people of Northern Ireland, who have been without their devolved institutions for far too long, and whose only representation in Westminster is ten DUP MPs and Lady Sylvia Hermon.

This goes beyond denying women abortion, there are criminal cases going to court for women who purchase abortion bills online. Most recently, a date has been given for a criminal trial for a mother who purchased mifepristone and misoprostal pills online for her 15 year old daughter who was in an abusive relationship in 2013. The Public Prosecution Service described the case as being in the “public interest” to prosecute.

The next prime minister should not be afraid to go over the heads of the idle politicians in Northern Ireland and bring the question directly to the people. They must remember that they are the leader of the Conservative and Unionist party, and for that union to continue it must have four equal nations. Where everyone in the UK enjoys the same freedom, opportunities and choice, regardless of whether you were born in a farming town in County Tyrone, or the Berkshire countryside.

The next prime minister should be mindful of the fact that they are prime minister for the entire United Kingdom, and that includes Northern Ireland. A girl from Belfast deserves the same opportunity, freedom and choice as a girl from Glasgow, Cardiff or London.

Defence secretary Penny Mordaunt has broken rank from the rest of the Conservative leadership, and from Jeremy Hunt who she is backing for Prime Minister. Speaking on Radio 4, she said that parliament and government must act on the issue, adding that “the paucity of care that women have endured in Northern Ireland is the most appalling thing and it must change”.

If we want to empower women, as Mordaunt is setting out to do, then we must allow them freedom and liberty over their own body. That liberty is currently denied to women in Northern Ireland because of our political stalemate. Reproductive health care is a human right that is being denied to women within the United Kingdom - and the government has a duty to those women.

For too long, both our politicians and the media focus on the abortion debate in the United States. Seemingly willing to ignore the fact that a stone’s throw away, in their own union, abortion is only allowed in cases where the woman’s life is at risk. It’s illegal in cases of incest and fetal abnormality syndromes.

Regardless of whether Hunt or Johnson wins Downing Street, they have a duty to ensure women in Northern Ireland have the same freedom, choice and opportunity as women elsewhere in the United Kingdom.


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