I grew up in a safe DUP seat - Britain is in for a shock

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By Caitlin de Jode

And so it begins. Just 24 hours after a DUP-Tory alliance was announced a former Conservative cabinet minister has signalled the DUP could push for amendments to abortion laws in exchange for their support at Westminster. Former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson told BBC Radio that the Tories’ new partners in crime might call for a debate “on further reduction of abortion times as medical science advances”.

For many Northern Irish people, waking up (or in my case, staying up) on Friday morning felt almost like entering an alternative universe. While British journalists and voters frantically googled “what is the DUP”, those of us living in England spent the day educating the people around us on the policies and positions of the Conservative Party’s new best friends. In case you haven’t heard - they’re anti-abortion, anti-same sex marriage and some of them don’t believe in climate change.

On a normal day, no one in Britain pays much attention to the fact that gay marriage and abortion are both illegal in Northern Ireland, which can be incredibly frustrating for those of us campaigning for change. Yesterday however, was different.

I grew up in one of the safest DUP seats in Northern Ireland – North Antrim, represented in Westminster by Ian Paisley Junior, the son of the party’s founder. The DUP’s roots lie in hardline, evangelical Christianity and a historic rejection of power-sharing agreements with nationalists. They campaigned against the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which secured Northern Ireland a fragile peace. In March 2007, the DUP entered a power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein, leading the devolved government at Stormont until earlier this year, and remaining the largest party after the last assembly elections in March.

Whilst the opinions of many of the Democratic Unionist Party’s MPs on climate change and LGBT+ rights are frankly shocking, the party’s firm opposition to any reform of Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws means women actually end up before the courts.  

As the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act still applies, and women who procure a termination can face up to life imprisonment - even if they’ve become pregnant as a result of a sexual crime. In recent years there have been calls from politicians and lobbyists across Northern Ireland to liberalise these laws, but all have been rejected by the Democratic Unionist Party.

Prime Minister Theresa May talks to DUP Leader Arlene Foster during a visit to the Balmoral Show

Gregory Campbell, DUP MP for East Londonderry described the party as “unashamedly pro-life”, stating “we will not be changing our support for the retention of innocent life… There is nothing more innocent than an unborn child.”

Opposition to abortion is not an unusual position for Northern Irish politicians, even though this ignores the majority of the population, which supports the liberalisation of the current laws. However, the DUP take an incredibly hardline stance on abortion in all cases, including pregnancy as a result of rape, and fatal foetal abnormalities.  Under current law, neither situation is considered legal grounds for a termination of pregnancy. A 2016 vote in the Stormont Assembly on liberalising the law on these grounds was defeated, despite a Belfast High Court ruling a few months previously that said Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion were incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

In a debate in the House of Commons in 2009, David Simpson, DUP MP for Upper Bann criticised pro-choice MPs for their “anti-democratic, anti-human rights stance” and called for change in British abortion law, to make it more like Northern Irish law on the issue. These words feel particularly chilling - considering Simpson and his party colleagues now have Theresa May’s ear. All DUP MPs also voted against Diana Johnson’s 2017 Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill which sought full decriminalisation for those who have abortions in England and Wales.

As a result of this new “deal” with the Conservative Party, it looks likely that the DUP’s influence at Westminster will grow significantly in the months to come, no doubt sending shivers down the spines of many right-thinking people.  Last night, Theresa May moved to reassure her party leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, that LGBT rights in Great Britain would not be compromised as a result of her new found alliance. She even suggested that she’ll try and use her influence to advance LGBT rights in NI.

It’s unlikely she’ll succeed. But it’s even more unlikely that the same reassurances will be given to those fighting for improvements to reproductive rights.

Then there’s the clear impact on power-sharing negotiations for the devolved government, which are due to restart on Monday. It may be that the DUP’s effect on legislation in England and Wales remains negligible. But it is certain that this general election result will have profound repercussions for Northern Irish politics.

If there's any silver lining to be found in the midst of all these clouds, it's that the DUP is no longer just Northern Ireland's problem. The British public are finally paying attention - and they don't like what they see.