LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Six weeks after the biggest ever defeat for the pro-life movement on the island of Ireland, campaigners are rallying to keep abortion illegal in Northern Ireland.
Inspired by the March for Life in the United States, the All-Ireland Rally for Life has been held annually since 2007, alternating between Dublin – the capital of the Republic of Ireland – and Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
This year, the rally was scheduled for Belfast in July 7.
Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland – it is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act which legalized it in the rest of the United Kingdom.
However, with the overwhelming vote in overturning the Republic of Ireland’s pro-life provisions in the May 25 referendum, pressure is now being placed on the North to change its laws.
“You could say in a sense we are being targeted at the moment. The very day, on the 25th of May – even before the final count – we had threats and one of the threats was from the Sinn Féin party and others saying the North is next,” said Bernadette Smyth, the founder and director of Precious Life, the largest pro-life organization in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin is the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, meaning it supports the unification of the north and south, and has traditionally drawn its support from the Catholic population. However, the party – which had strong links to the Irish Republican Party – opposes the Church on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, which is also still illegal in the North.
Smyth said the province is also under pressure from the Westminster parliament in London to bring Northern Ireland’s laws in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Members of both the ruling Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party are proposing decriminalizing abortion across the UK.
“Their argument is: Why should women in Northern Ireland not have the same so-called rights as women in the rest of the UK. I personally would say it is because we are shaming the rest of the UK, because we still continue to protect unborn children here,” she told Crux.
For decades, Northern Ireland was in the news for “The Troubles”: The conflict between the IRA and British government and Ulster Protestant militant group that led to the deaths of over 3,500 people.
Most of the violence ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which installed a power-sharing government at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Irish Assembly in Belfast.
However, the government collapsed in January 2017, and a new one hasn’t been formed. Smyth said this means the London government has more of a free hand to do what it wants.
“It’s got very serious and it’s getting very difficult, because we could have abortion imposed here,” she said.
As a sign of the political significance of this year’s rally, it will take place in front of Stormont as opposed to central Belfast as in years past.
Saturday’s pro-life rally will feature speakers from across the political divide – despite the troubled history between Catholics and Protestants, opposition to abortion is the one thing that unites them.
After 20 years of peace – if not quite friendly relations – people on both sides are willing to work together on the issue.
“I call it changing times is changing minds. Years ago, Catholics and Protestants – Unionists [who favor staying in the United Kingdom] and Nationalists – couldn’t have stood together on any issue, but this is beyond the day-to-day political arguments, this is something that unites Catholics and Protestants together,” Smyth said.
However, like in the Republic of Ireland to the south, Catholic politicians are less reliable on the abortion issue: Sinn Féin is pro-choice and the moderate SDLP, although officially pro-life, allows members to dissent on the issue.
“Sinn Féin is the only pro-legal abortion major party in Northern Ireland,” said Joseph Meaney, the Director of International Outreach at Human Life International.
Sinn Féin does not even allow its officials the freedom of conscience to oppose abortion, leading to the resignation of a member of the Irish parliament last month.
Meaney blamed a declining practice of religion by Catholics in Ireland – both north and south – for the weakening support for pro-life laws.
“Places where churches are full do not have these bad results. Poland is an example,” he told Crux.
However, the largest traditionally Protestant – and traditionally anti-Catholic – party has not softened its pro-life stance.
“In reality, it is actually the Evangelical party, the Democratic Unionist Party, that are actually holding things back here. They are the very politicians that are saying that they would never agree to any change in the legislation,” Smyth said.
The DUP might also keep London from acting unilaterally to legalize abortion: The Conservative party depends on the votes of the support of the Northern Irish party in Parliament.
The leader of the DUP even announced last month they want to appeal to Catholic voters who feel abandoned by their own political parties.
“My task is to make voting DUP as comfortable a choice for a Catholic as anyone else,” said Peter Robinson.
“There is an openness to political debate that there has never been; people are not prepared to be pigeonholed based on their religious upbringing. I welcome that and only backward political parties will fear such a direction of travel,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
However, even if sectarian tensions were not still palpable in Northern Ireland, it is questionable if Catholics would ever vote for a party historically associated with Unionist paramilitaries, and founded by Ian Paisley, the Presbyterian minister famous for denouncing Pope John Paul II as the anti-Christ in the European Parliament.
Times and minds may change, but probably not by that much.