Jennifer ThomsonA consideration of religious-moral issues in the Northern Irish context suggests that, when it comes to some topics, there is more that unites the parties than divides them. Quite why it is issues of a moral-religious nature that have the potential for cross-party support warrants further attention, writes Jennifer Thomson.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Northern Ireland was as divided as ever in its politics. The province has returned to the headlines again over Attorney General John Larkin’s call for an end to all prosecutions for crimes during the Troubles while cross-party talks lead by American diplomat Richard Haas continue to rumble on in the background. However, if we turn away from issues derived from the conflict (the legacy of the past, the issue of flag flying and displays, the ever controversial parade season), and to topics of a more religious-moral nature (like abortion and same-sex marriage), then politics in Northern Ireland take on a very different shape.

Abortion and same-sex marriage have both received much news coverage and political lip service in the past year. The opening of a Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast last year saw the provision of the first private terminations in the island of Ireland. Meanwhile, motions in the Northern Irish Assembly to pass legislation for same-sex marriage along similar lines to Westminster failed. Both issues have seen an interesting congruence of Nationalist and Unionist politicians. Do these religious-moral issues have the power to unite politicians at Stormont?

Abortion in Northern Ireland

The 1967 Abortion Act, which legislates for abortions in Scotland, England and Wales has never been extended to Northern Ireland. Because of this, the province exists in a legislative grey area, with the legality of terminations yet to be fully explained.

As of late 2012 onwards, the issue of abortion returned to prominent political debate in the province. In October 2012, a Marie Stopes clinic was opened in Belfast with facilities to provide terminations for up to 9 weeks of pregnancy. Later that same month, Savita Halappanavar died of septicaemia after being denied a termination in a Galway hospital. Both events reignited the debate around abortion in Ireland, North and South.

In a direct challenge to the Marie Stopes clinic, a motion to amend the Criminal Justice Bill was co-proposed at the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont by the Democratic Unionist Party (Paul Givan MLA), the Ulster Unionist Party (Tom Elliot MLA) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (Alban Maginness MLA). This aimed to limit provision of termination to NHS facilities, thus effectively outlawing Marie Stopes from working in the province. A petition of concern was registered by a joint Sinn Fein (Catriona Ruane MLA), Alliance (Anna Lo MLA) and Green (Stephen Agnew MLA) grouping, stopped the proposed legislation at the eleventh hour. MLAs finally voted 53 to 40 against the amendment, with 9 Nationalists voting for the amendment, and 5 Unionists against it, showing a considerable divergence from a straight Nationalist/Unionist split. All MLAs designated as other voted against it.

Same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland

The 2004 Civil Partnership Act passed through Westminster was extended to Northern Ireland, against the wishes of the Democratic Unionist Party. Same-sex marriage is a devolved issue and has thus been addressed separately by the Scottish parliament and the Northern Irish Assembly. The issue has been debated twice by the Assembly at Stormont, at points that roughly correlate to equivalent debates going on at the same time in Westminster.

The second motion, tabled by Sinn Fein in April 2013 declared that:

“That this Assembly recognises the importance of the constitutional convention; notes the participation of parties from the Assembly; welcomes the 79% majority vote at the constitutional convention in favour of marriage equality; and calls on the Executive to bring forward the necessary legislation to allow for same-sex marriage.”

The Sinn Fein Member tabling it, Bronwyn McGahan MLA, went on to quote British Equalities Minister Maria Miller’s position on marriage equality. Sinn Fein were attacked in the debate that followed on two main points – firstly, that the position they adopted was mere grandstanding and lacked any real substantial attempt at change. David Ford MLA (Alliance), Justice Minister, said that:

“…blindly and blandly calling for immediate legislation is futile and is grandstanding. It guarantees some heat, very little light and absolutely no meeting of minds around the issue … what we have had today is an attempt by Sinn Fein the create the impression that it is concerned about lesbian and gay equality, but I fear that, even in some of what Ms McGahan said, it addresses that party’s [Sinn Fein] failure to deliver on things such as a sexual orientation strategy, a single equality Bill, or the issue of homophobic bullying.”

Secondly, Sinn Fein were broadly condemned across the Unionist spectrum for framing the motion via the issue of the Constitutional Convention. Roy Beggs MLA (Ulster Unionist Party) declared later in the debate:

“The precise wording of the motion asks that the Assembly to ‘recognise the importance of the constitutional convention.’ I am sorry, but I thought to myself, ‘What constitutional convention?’ I did not know that there was a constitutional convention occurring. I am a British citizen. Even if I happened to agree with everything else that was said, I would have voted against the motion because of the mere inclusion of the phrase.”

Again, voting patterns largely followed this constitutional framework set up by Sinn Fein, with all Nationalist MLAs voting for the motion, and the same three Unionist MLAs from the October 2012 vote joining them.

Bridging the political divide?

A consideration of religious-moral issues in the Northern Irish context suggests that, when it comes to some topics, there is more that unites the parties than divides them. A Stormont motion tabled by prominent members of the Democratic Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, in the case of abortion, is a rare occurrence, and suggests that cross-division communication and work is possible. Similarly, the sight of a Sinn Fein Minister quoting a Conservative Westminster Cabinet member in a debate is a bizarre congruence of viewpoints.

Debates around same-sex marriage have had a clearer communal divide than those around abortion. Framed around a discourse of equal rights, as opposed to the emotive concerns around the “unborn child” of the abortion debates, same-sex marriage fits more clearly into Nationalist discourse, especially contemporary Sinn Fein’s belief in an “Ireland of Equals”. Given the way that same-sex marriage was proposed by Sinn Fein via a discussion of the Constitutional Convention however, the issue has not been discussed on its own terms, but hijacked as a means for Sinn Fein to further the issue of sovereignty.

Quite why it is issues of a moral-religious nature that have the potential for cross-party support warrants further attention. With Northern Ireland still divided politically along Nationalist and Unionist lines, could a more socially conservative stance from some parties bring voters together? And what happens to the rights of women and the LGBT community in this scenario?

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

About the Author

Jennifer ThomsonJennifer Thomson is an ESRC funded Doctoral student in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research focuses on the politics surrounding abortion in contemporary Northern Ireland. She holds an MA in Political Science from the New School for Social Research, New York, and a BA from Girton College, University of Cambridge.

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