The Northern Irish abortion issue could topple Theresa May once and for all – here’s why

Rachael Revesz

Depending on which side of the Brexit debate you sit, it has been easy to blame obtuse EU bureaucrats or incompetent Westminster officials for the fragile state of negotiations. Behind the scenes, the DUP is the link in the chain that is increasingly likely to snap.

Soon after DUP leader Arlene Foster told Sky News that any Brexit deal that treated Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK would be her “only red line”, a cross-party coalition, including senior Tory MPs, announced that Foster could not have her cake and eat it. If she wanted equal application of Brexit in Northern Ireland, she would also have to accept same sex marriage and abortion.

The coalition is now calling for a vote in the Commons to repeal parts of a 19th century UK-wide law so that, instead of imposing a new law in Northern Ireland, the move would force the whole country to update its legislation. This strategy could work. As a minority government, she is vulnerable to a rebellion from just seven MPs from her own party. Theresa May granted Northern Irish women the right to free abortions on the NHS in England last year, but only because Labour MP Stella Creasy wanted to include an amendment on the issue in the Queen’s speech, and to prevent embarrassment, she allowed the change in law before being defeated by a vote.

Our prime minister would also be unwise to ignore this issue post-MeToo. Women’s rights have recently enjoyed a domino effect, from the exposure of other predators and faux feminists, to initiating new conversations on consent and abortion. Abortion campaigners have been working hard for decades, but the MeToo movement has allowed us to surf on such a strong wave that it caused Steve Bannon to worry that we would bring down the patriarchy.

Campaigners also know they have to act now, because the public conscience can be fickle. Ireland’s resounding clamour last month to repeal the eighth amendment, which only came into force in the 1980s, has kept this wheel of momentum turning. It’s ironic that Ireland, a once deeply Catholic country, is now looking like a bastion of progress compared to its northern neighbour and much of Europe that has become infected with nationalism.

But how to proceed? On Question Time last week, the panellists debated the Northern Irish abortion issue with two women, three men and nobody from Northern Ireland. Some of the panellists were keen to allow a referendum, claiming abortion was a “devolved issue”. Why would bodily autonomy be devolved rather than, say, Brexit? As Labour MP Caroline Flint said on the show, abortion is a human rights issue.

Even if there was a referendum, it would need to be sanctioned by Westminster. And the DUP wouldn’t be keen on that either, given the latest polls show public opinion leans heavily towards decriminalisation in the case of rape and incest. A referendum result is not legally binding and there is no functioning government in Stormont to thrash out exactly what a new law would mean.

It is not enough to demand that Northern Ireland catch up with UK law. Abortion is still technically illegal in the UK. It requires permission from two doctors. Women in England are not allowed to take abortion pills at home – meaning that if they don’t live next door to a hospital, they could have their miscarriage in a taxi on the way home. They can only get an abortion until 24 weeks. At abortion clinics, women are often surrounded by protesters, holding placards with harrowing imagery of foetuses. There is no law preventing this harassment.

It is fair to say the deal Theresa May made with the DUP wasn’t thought through. It was a frantic, last ditch attempt by the Tories to claw back power after calling a snap election to capitalise on their high approval ratings, which then fell through the floor.

But in a bid to keep control, the Tory government hadn’t banked on the national conscience reaching a new level on LGBTQ+ and gender equality; they hadn’t foreseen the risk of jeopardising the Good Friday Agreement or the possibility of a hard border. And they should have known, surely, that giving Northern Ireland £1bn two years ago would not keep those DUP “red lines” at bay forever.

Two years after the Brexit referendum, this deal with the 10 DUP MPs could be about to crumble. And wouldn’t it be glorious if the catalyst was women’s rights catching up with the 21st century.