In 2016, a woman from Belfast was prosecuted for taking an abortion pill after her flatmates reported her to the police. In January of this year, we learned that a 12-year-old victim of sexual assault had to travel to England under police escort to access an abortion. A 2013 report by The Rainbow Project found that a quarter of LGBTQ+ youth in Northern Ireland surveyed had attempted suicide.
These tragedies are unfathomable, sickeningly familiar, and the pain feels endless – but today is the first day Northern Ireland has seen progress in years. It may not be the result of a vote, and it may be one step in a long journey, but we have Northern activists to thank for this change. Northern people will no longer feel left behind by the sociological progress made on this side of the border. The dynamics of the NI political sphere would make a vote on these issues essentially void – when most of the government only cares about tribal divides, human rights are left behind.
“…this is Northern Ireland, and democracy is a nonsensical paradox – Stormont does not provide a democracy, it provides a place-holder for one.”
On July 22 of this year, a bill which legislates for the extension of marriage equality and the decriminalisation of abortion access, as well as the requirement to implement regulations for abortion services, passed through its final stage in Westminster. Back in July, the news was met with elation by women across the island, but since then caution has outweighed excitement. Stormont’s history has made progressives wary of such promises – a prominent example being when in 2015, marriage equality passed by a slim majority on its 5th attempt, but was quashed by the DUP’s veto using the ‘Petition of Concern’, a response Arlene Foster has consistently vowed to repeat.
October 13 marked 1000 days since Stormont’s collapse and 1000 days of Northern Ireland not having a government. 8 days later, what activists have been fighting for for decades finally occurred. Back in July, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, whose best moments include being forced to repay £555 for pay-to-view films he had claimed as expenses and suggesting Ireland rejoin the Commonwealth, reacted to the progressive feat with anger. He believed the motion was “undermining the political institutions of Northern Ireland.” Donaldson stressed the need for democracy to decide these things, the need for elected representatives to vote on these issues. But this is Northern Ireland, and democracy is a nonsensical paradox – Stormont does not provide a democracy, it provides a place-holder for one. Donaldson suggests that because these issues were not introduced through a vote, they are unjust. But the DUP have proven that they will ‘Petition of Concern’ or ‘Conscience Clause’ any step toward progress, and so the power of democracy is made null. It’s unsurprising that the “considerable brain drain” occurring in NI has been more widely discussed in recent years, and it’s hard not to see the influence a political climate both unwelcoming and unsafe for anyone facing a crisis pregnancy or who identifies as LGBTQ+ might have. While Stormont went from defunct to 1000 days of being literally unused, activists kept going. The work of activists and groups like Alliance for Choice and Love Equality NI cannot be undervalued – this news is the product of many dedicated citizens fighting for change for decades on end, and isn’t that a feat for democracy?
“Many Northern students bond over the widespread lack of sex education – except for the anti-choice lecture, that was mandatory for most.”
Articles about abortion access in the North often include polls indicating what “the people of NI” think, and what way they’d vote if it came to it. But such inclusions are problematic in many ways – most obviously, regarding the increasingly low levels of voter participation, as well as the prevalence of misinformation. The DUP encourage creationism to be taught in schools, they believe climate change is a “con” (DUP MP Sammy Wilson), that capital punishment should be brought back (DUP MP Gregory Campbell), that “in the garden of Eden it was Adam and Eve it wasn’t Adam and Steve” (DUP MP David Simpson) – the list goes on. Many Northern students bond over the widespread lack of sex education – except for the anti-choice lecture, that was mandatory for most. Thankfully, a lot of us had resources available to help see past this rhetoric, whether it was family members, friends, literature, or the internet. But that is a privilege not everyone has, and indoctrination is a powerful tool. The DUP make the peddling of misinformation systemic, and democracy in such an environment is dysfunctional. Such dysfunction manifests as harm – as we’ve seen by the 62,000 people who have travelled to England for reproductive healthcare since 1968, as we’ve seen by the multifaceted struggles the LGBTQ+ community face, in addition to their prohibition from marrying their partners.
“Northern Trinity students who, like me, often had a yearning in the back of their mind throughout the Repeal campaign, can sleep easier tonight.”
The campaign to repeal the eighth amendment made sure to reiterate that ‘The North Is Next’, and at the time, some cynics thought this to be little more than a passing sentiment. The support from activists across the island has been consistent – we just didn’t have a government to make it a dialogue, and an activist-led monologue is often much less newsworthy. Student activism across the North, as well as Students Unions and the NUS-USI (National Union of Students – Union of Students in Ireland), has been a powerful force for harnessing and supporting student activism. The work of student activist groups is extraordinary: meetings have been organised here and in England, marches for choice established and powerful information has been spread. Merely projecting the message that pregnant people have options is one that defies NI’s draconian abortion laws, and this kind of public solidarity not only injects compassion into college campuses, but helps these ideas grow, develop, and spread.
It’s clear that we are still very far from equality in the North, but this historic change marks a huge leap forward. Northern Trinity students who, like me, often had a yearning in the back of their mind throughout the Repeal campaign, can sleep easier tonight. Now, home is one step closer to resembling the open-mindedness of Dublin, and we have come worlds closer to making abortion care free, safe, local and legal for all across the island of Ireland. Today is a sign that, even with elected representatives taking a thousand days off, progress can be made thanks to activists – we just have to get creative.