By Emma Campbell.
Just last week Alliance for Choice in Belfast and Derry signed two letters – one was a joint letter from some of the pro-choice groups in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) to health minister Simon Harris TD about the shameful gaps and barriers built in to the current abortion provision.
The second was a joint letter from public figures, women’s groups and politicians in the UK to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in Westminster asking them to include Northern Ireland (NI) and migrant women in the Domestic Abuse Bill.
As a campaigning organisation based in Northern Ireland (NI), we are obliged to work towards change in three different jurisdictions.
One struggle is for cultural inclusion and built upon an incredibly strong base of solidarity from years of working with the aforementioned groups in ROI, but fraught with jurisdictional and legal barriers.
The second is within NI, coaxing (understandably) cautious individuals and organisations out into the blinding light of openly supporting abortion rights.
The third is in the UK, where the approach is less about abortion and more about the intricacies of devolution and convincing the MPs and British public that this really is something that people in NI want, despite what is misrepresented by the DUP in Parliament.
Similar to the assertion that neither lobbying or marching alone will deliver the asks of our campaign, our goals cannot ever be met by appealing to one of the jurisdictions without the others. Even if the campaign itself were not so intentionally aimed, we are a cross-community, all-walks group; we need to make sure that we will not leave anyone behind, right down to our #TheNorthIsNext and #AbortionRightsNI hashtags on social media.
It is a delicate balancing act. We have been levelled with many accusations in the course of our work, from “high satanic abortion wizards” (we’ll take it), to “a cabal of nationalist feminists”, to “Brits” and even, believe it or not, “women-haters” when we have dared to be trans* inclusive.
We can handle the slurs, it comes with the territory, but what we can never do is change the locus of power. The control held over us and our bodies is relationally very different according to jurisdiction. Usurping that power therefore requires varying approaches.
Few would argue against the notion that the cultural stranglehold over the ideas, myths and stigmas that surround abortion are shared most closely with the rest of ROI. The deep religiosity and its influence on our gender norms and expectations are the same, even if the type of Christianity isn’t as homogenous. Our food, language, music and craic is all more similar to each other than it is to Great Britain’s.
The relief and joy of the result of the recent abortion referendum, one which we involved ourselves in to canvass, was of course about the incredible victory for our siblings but also it offered us hope that we are not far behind. This vital cultural power has already swayed more to our favour as a result; however, legislatively we cannot invoke direct change from Dáil Éireann.
What we are up against in the 2019 version of NI is a place that is twice a country but no country at all. As citizens, we are tethered physically to this island and legislatively to another. The so-called ‘narcissism of small differences’ plays out so exactly in these six counties; the primacy of national identity above all else supposes that everyone places it at the forefront of their daily existence.
Aside from obfuscating those who identify with neither a unionist or nationalist mindset, this insistence on flag-bearer above all else subsumes the many other important identities any one person may inhabit. Survivors of abuse, children, people with disabilities, BAME people, LGBT+ people, women, working and jobless class, and so on are all encompassed by people simultaneously.
Having no sitting assembly is a blessing and a curse: on the one hand it opens a path to a greater source of power (England’s difficulty could be our opportunity…); on the other it could mean a never-ending delay on rights. Consequently, our job on home turf is consciousness-raising from the grassroots up and recognising the experience of abortion is a universal one and one that should not be exiled.
The final and most complicated locus of control is the British government at Westminster. Alliance for Choice was disappointed that the Assembly failed to be able to move past its latest controversy; however, whilst Stormont was burning, we were working with the United Nations to host the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) for their inquiry into abortion in NI.
Our current position with Westminster, as pronounced by CEDAW – that devolution is no barrier to human rights – clearly positions Westminster as the seat of our current oppression. The DUP loom large as the main protagonists in standing over our wombs and sexuality like creepy sentinels, but they have had a hand from the UK government, in the shape of a confidence and supply deal with the Tories.
By painting themselves as a truly representative voice for all of NI in the UK Parliament (with only one sitting moderate MP in the shape of Lady Sylvia Hermon) and with no sitting MPs from any other party present to disrupt their Caleb Foundation-directed position, the real voice of the people in NI is never heard. Even though Sinn Féin don’t take their seats, they signed this letter requesting action from Westminster.
We are faced with a riddle; the ROI wants to help, and has offered the most meaningful solidarity from all quarters, but is unable to assist us significantly. NI’s six counties would be afraid to do anything on its own even if it currently could – civil servants will not make such a controversial decision and have not been given the powers to by the Secretary of State.
Ultimately, the UK government can do something, has been told by a UN body that it should do something, and is even holding its own inquiry about how to do something and yet… the mess that is Brexit has guaranteed the anti-abortion DUP unprecedented influence on the Tory party who currently need them for government.
For progress to occur, Westminster must end our oppression, remove their colonial stranglehold on our reproduction and grant us recognition as equal to all abortion seekers in the UK.
Emma Campbell is the Co-Chair of Alliance for Choice, Belfast. Visit Alliance for Choice’s website here. Follow Alliance for Choice on Twitter @All4Choice.