They were all there: Northern Ireland’s DUP and Sinn Féin leaders, side by side with the Good Friday agreement’s guarantors, the British and Irish prime ministers. All were gathered at the funeral of the journalist Lyra McKee. “Why in God’s name,” asked Fr Martin Magill, had it taken her death to bring them together? But his exasperated tone implied he didn’t expect a political miracle.
Visit this deadlocked region, the UK’s poorest, and it feels transformed from the dark days of the troubles. But its political paralysis is partly a product of Westminster’s longstanding neglect of the region, at least until the DUP unexpectedly came to play a pivotal role in the Brexit psychodrama. The red hand of Ulster holds in its palm the fate of May’s Brexit deal, though the DUP doesn’t represent the far more progressive and forward-looking remain-voting country. The party may yet become Boris Johnson’s kingmakers through its refusal to back Theresa May’s deal.
Direct rule from Westminster doesn’t bother the DUP, nor apparently does a hard border that would cripple both north and south. McKee’s death wasn’t needed as a reminder of how such a border could revive bloodshed that never altogether went away. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin’s own obduracy means it won’t seize the great chance to ride into Westminster with its 7 MPs to save Northern Ireland from Brexit, keep open the border and bring north and south closer. If only the party would: it’s not too late and it would advance the cause of a united Ireland. But it won’t, because of all the history that English commentators ignore at our peril.
Another totemic Northern Ireland issue emerges today: abortion law. This morning the cross-party Commons select committee on women and equalities, chaired by the former Tory minister Maria Miller, delivered a blistering report calling for Westminster to step in and reform Northern Ireland’s ultra-punitive law. Abortion is banned even in cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormality. Last year, nominally Catholic Ireland legalised abortion after a citizens’ assembly and a referendum. The UK does now fund Northern Irish women to have free abortions in England – and Scotland too.
The committee heard Northern Irish womens’ stories, including the shocking case of a 12-year-old rape victim who had to travel to Britain for an abortion accompanied by the police told to seize “the products of conception” for evidence. It’s hard to imagine that such filthy brutality can happen in a place that says it’s a part of our country. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service says too many women can’t travel to Britain: those in abusive relationships and those too ill to travel or too young. Besides, what kind of absurd law is this – it’s a moral crime punishable with a long prison term, but it’s OK to travel to commit it across the sea?
Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP
The bigoted, Bible-bashing, tribal Ulster face of the DUP we see at Westminster is a travesty as a representation of the Northern Irish people, as out of kilter over abortion as over Brexit. The most recent poll by Amnesty last October found that 66% in Northern Ireland think that, in the absence of the assembly, Westminster should act to change the law; 65% agree that abortion should not be a crime. Even 67% of DUP voters said that having an abortion should not be a crime.
The select committee is far too tentative, wanting abortion to be permitted only in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, but with a timeline for bringing all women’s rights into line with the rest of the UK. But the only rationale for stepping in is to fully equalise women’s rights across the UK. To be in the UK, they must accept fundamental UK rights.
Will the government do it? The boneheaded Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, who admitted when she took office that she didn’t know that electoral politics in Northern Ireland split along sectarian lines, is only allowed out with official lines written for her. She duly repeats the DUP-appeasing official take: “It would not be right for the UK government to undermine the devolution settlement by trying to force on the people of Northern Ireland something that we in Westminster think is right ... It is right, constitutionally and morally, that these decisions are taken in Stormont.”
Of all the abominations against women, forcing them to bear a child against their will is one of the most life-changing cruelties. In the UK, one in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime – neither shame nor tragedy, just a common medical procedure. The committee heard that women using abortion medication bought online risk up to life imprisonment under the UK-wide 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This is beyond grotesque. Medical professionals live in a climate of fear, not knowing if it’s legal to refer women for treatment in England or if they should report patients who using abortion pills to the police.
While this law against women persists, Northern Ireland is not truly a part of Britain. The DUP protest against any red line dividing the province from the rest of the UK, yet this is a red line that divides them from UK standards of civilisation, redder than a few customs checks on English goods arriving at Port of Larne.
The DUP can’t have it both ways – either they belong to the UK or they can cling to their brutal, primitivist treatment of women, but as a separate country. Don’t expect May’s government to do this. But since her time is up, what better revenge against the DUP, who took her bungs but still won’t back her? It would at least be one worthwhile legacy on May’s empty page of history.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist