Years ago, I would on occasion have this conversation with my mother. ‘I think British troops should not be in Northern Ireland, clearly the north of Ireland is part of the island of Ireland and it should be one country’.
She would answer: ‘Ah, but you see the UK are in Northern Ireland to protect the rights of the women there to obtain divorce and contraception.’ She honestly believed that, and I didn’t know enough about it to contradict her.
I remember thinking it wasn’t really the reason and that probably the UK government were not that concerned about women’s rights when applied to poor working-class women who didn’t live in Britain (nor even those poor working class women in Britain). But it was her firm belief that the Republic of Ireland was strictly controlled by the Catholic church and women in particular were oppressed by it (something I couldn’t disagree with).
So, it’s somewhat ironic that lately it seems the Republic is rather more progressive than NI, what with the referendum on equal marriage in 2015 and the more recent one on decriminalising abortion.
Until recently, I bet there were many people (myself included) who hadn’t realised that the laws in Northern Ireland on abortion were stricter than in Britain (Wales, Scotland and England).
Each week, 28 women from Northern Ireland are forced to travel to England for an abortion, making the difficult journey away from home in order to access a healthcare service which is freely, safely and legally available to women in the rest of the UK. Some women are being treated as criminals for trying to access safe terminations.
So, lately, there has been active campaigning to draw attention to the fact that NI is so out of step with the rest of the UK. In February, the very wonderful Siobhán McSweeney (sister Michael from C4’s Derry Girls) and Nicola Coughlan (Clare in Derry Girls) were among many campaigners who protested in Westminster, London, where they delivered over 62,000 signatures from people calling for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.
28 women marched with suitcases towards parliament, representing the 28 women who travel to England, Scotland or Wales each week.
Also attending the demonstration was a woman who did not qualify under NI’s existing law for a termination, even though the pregnancy was given a fatal foetal diagnosis. She was unable to access the procedure in NI and had to live through the trauma of having to carry to term and deliver a stillborn baby. There are many women who have had to suffer in similar ways.
Northern Ireland’s abortion law was set in Victorian times. It’s one of the strictest in the world. It seems that although the UK government has responsibility for the rights of UK citizens, they have forgotten that Northern Ireland is part of the UK.
It shouldn’t be necessary to add here: the reason I have raised this issue is because I see it as a human rights and equality issue.
Wealthy women have always been able to access safe, if not entirely legal, terminations of pregnancy. It’s always been the poorer women who have died.
It is the poorer women who have been imprisoned in some countries (El Salvador being one of the worst) for the crime of having had a miscarriage, which is the logical conclusion to very strict banned-in-all-circumstances abortion laws.
It is the poorer underage girls who suffer having to carry to term their babies after being raped, usually by a family member. Women and girls from wealthy families could always travel to less strict countries just as they do today from NI.
After health services are up and running in the Republic of Ireland providing safe and free terminations of pregnancy for their residents, I wonder how many Northern Ireland women will be able to make the rather shorter journey south in order to access these services? Or will Brexit scupper that? Hopefully NI will agree to join the rest of the UK in the 21st century.