Our politicians may be backward but NI residents want change
By katherine nesbitt
The media attention on the DUP in the last few weeks has been something of both an embarrassment and an opportunity to someone from Belfast living in Great Britain.
The increased media scrutiny has meant serious questions are being asked about the party's policies on a range of issues from abortion to climate change, to LGBTQ rights - but it has, unfairly, also led to questions about these attitudes amongst Northern Irish people as a whole. Suggestions of it being ‘backwards’, ‘in the dark ages’ and ‘medieval’ seem to have confused the policies of the DUP with the population, and it doesn’t ring true for me at all.
I was heartened this week by the publication of the 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, the most comprehensive of its kind to date. The survey reflected what many of us have known for years, that the general public in Northern Ireland is leagues ahead of its lawmakers, particularly on abortion legislation.
The survey showed that a majority of people agreed that abortion should definitely or probably be legal in circumstances of fatal (81%) and serious foetal abnormality (73%), rape or incest (78%), the death of the mother if she does not receive an abortion (83%), a risk to the life of the mother if she continues her pregnancy (75%), and concerns for her mental and her physical health (76%). The law in Northern Ireland currently only allows for abortions where there is a risk to the mother’s life, or it would adversely affect her physical or mental health. Only 16 people had legal abortions on the NHS in 2016.
On June 9th, the DUP candidate Emma Little Pengelly won the seat of South Belfast, where I grew up, from SDLP’s Alastair McDonnell, who held the seat by one of the smallest majorities in the UK. The SDLP takes the same hard-line stance and oppose abortion in any circumstances. Sinn Fein policy allows for abortion in cases of FFA, and its MLAs have voted to support it in cases of rape and incest too. The Ulster Unionist and Alliance parties both offer MLAs a free vote, considering it a matter of conscience.
Only the Green Party has stated in its manifesto that it wishes to decriminalise abortion. People Before Profit also campaign for ‘free, safe and legal’ abortion across Ireland. The survey showed that among both Catholics and Protestants, as well as those of no religion, support has increased for the legalisation of abortion in certain circumstances.
The results don’t entirely reflect my own view that abortions should be free, safe and legal without the need for unworkable exceptions. What this survey does show, is that attitudes have moved on enormously amongst the population in Northern Ireland, and the law is far more restrictive than the majority want it.
Crucially, the majority of respondents felt it was wrong to criminalise women for buying abortion pills online, even including cases where the woman does so because she does not want a family. 70% said that abortion should come under medical regulation and not criminal law.
There is a clear direction of travel in Northern Ireland, and the public overwhelmingly do not agree with the restrictive abortion law. The parties representing them at Stormont have until June 29th to get their act together and get back to power-sharing. They must them aim to reflect the real attitudes of Northern Irish people towards abortion.