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After Ireland Abortion Vote, Northern Irish Ask, ‘Why Not Us?’

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Tyler McNally was surprised when he answered a knock on the door of his Belfast house one evening to find two police officers standing there, and shocked when they presented a warrant to search the premises. They had reason to believe, Mr. McNally was told, that he had ordered abortion pills online for “a vulnerable woman.”

The case was eventually dropped for lack of evidence. But Mr. McNally said in an interview that there was no mistaking the intimidating nature of the raid, and wondered if that wasn’t the point of it all.

“Having two police officers sit in my living room and tell me that I may face life imprisonment only to then toy with the idea of bringing me in for questioning in cuffs or just invite me in to ‘try and get me to talk’ was quite a harrowing experience,” he said, “and I’m not someone depending on access to abortion services.”

Ireland’s vote on Friday to end its near ban on abortion, overwhelmingly supporting change in what used to be a bastion of Roman Catholic influence, has inspired many calls in Belfast, London and elsewhere for similar liberalization in British-ruled Northern Ireland, whose draconian laws governing the termination of pregnancy date to the 19th century.

“Women should have a choice,” said Kirsten Partwistle, 20, who was selling ice cream outside the Belfast City Hall, where a rally of around 700 people gathered on Monday. “It’s time for Northern Ireland to have abortion rights.”

She added that she would be participating in campaigns for abortion rights. “One hundred percent,” she said. “Hopefully we’re moving forward now.”

Yet while the Irish vote has given new momentum to Northern Ireland’s advocates for lifting its near ban, the pathway is far more complicated than it was in Ireland, which involved a relatively straightforward process of repealing a constitutional amendment.

Northern Ireland has blocked all efforts from London to liberalize its abortion law, which permits termination only if the life of the woman is endangered. There are no other exceptions — not rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormality — and those violating the ban could in theory, as Mr. McNally said, be given a life sentence.

While opinion polls consistently show that a majority of people in Northern Ireland want abortion to be available, across both Catholic and Protestant groups, the issue has become entangled in the sectarianism that is currently strangling politics here, where the National Assembly has been suspended for more than a year.

While Sinn Fein said after Friday’s vote in Ireland that the campaign for liberalized abortion laws would spread to the north, traditionally all political parties in Northern Ireland have been against allowing abortion, said Eleanor Crossey Malone, an organizer of ROSA, an abortion rights group.

“The main reason we’re behind — and we don’t have marriage equality either — is because of our sectarian past and because we still live in a deeply divided society,” she said. “People still vote on sectarian lines rather than on social issues, because they want to keep the other side out. The sectarian situation allows this issue to be swept under the rug.”

Because of that, she said, “there is a sense that change is not possible here — it all comes down to the sectarian stalemate. But young people are getting impatient over the lack of political will.”

In some cases, women with unwanted pregnancies are becoming desperate as well. While women in Northern Ireland can travel to England, Scotland or Wales to receive an abortion, many cannot afford the trip, making abortion pills an obvious alternative.

Five people have been arrested since last year for buying abortion pills online, and a mother was arrested for giving the pills to her 15-year-old daughter. In one case, a woman was arrested after her roommates reported her to the authorities for terminating her pregnancy by herself. She was given a suspended sentence.

This tangle of issues goes to the core of the ambiguities between Britain’s central government in London and the so-called devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that exercise some powers but remain part of the unitary state of the United Kingdom.

If that all sounds abstruse, the consequences are anything but nebulous, opening up fiery disputes that are creating headaches for Prime Minister Theresa May at a time when she is preoccupied with the internal Conservative Party debate over withdrawal from the European Union.

After the vote in the Irish Republic, Britain’s minister for women and equalities, Penny Mordaunt, said the vote there gave hope to women in Northern Ireland. Her assessment was echoed by four other women who have held the same job.

The opposition Labour Party has renewed its calls for new abortion laws in Northern Ireland. Shami Chakrabarti, the Labour spokeswoman on judicial issues, urged Mrs. May as “a self-identifying feminist to negotiate with the parties of Northern Ireland and legislate on this without delay.”

“We can’t have democracy without fundamental human rights,” Ms. Chakrabarti said.

There have even been calls for a separate referendum in Northern Ireland on the abortion law, even though the law could be changed by a simple act of the assembly.

“The situation in Northern Ireland is that we still have a ban that dates back to 1861,” said Ms. Crossey Malone. More liberal British legislation, introduced in 1967, “was never extended to Northern Ireland,” she said. “We still have a ban that says we can technically be imprisoned for life for having an abortion.”

The political situation is complicated by Mrs. May’s government’s dependence for its majority in Parliament on the 10 lawmakers representing Northern Ireland’s deeply conservative Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes abortion.

Leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party have been insistent that, as one of the party’s lawmakers put it, the North “should not be bullied into accepting abortion on demand.”

Arlene Foster, the party’s leader, insisted that “Friday’s referendum has no impact upon the law in Northern Ireland.”

She added: “It is for the Northern Ireland assembly to debate and decide such issues.”

British attempts to broker a revival of the suspended assembly have come to nothing, technically raising the possibility of the restoration of direct British rule — something Mrs. May seems reluctant to undertake.

For her part, Mrs. May has limited her response to Ireland’s vote to saying on Twitter that the referendum “was an impressive show of democracy which delivered a clear and unambiguous result.”

Beyond that, her options seem limited, since the loss of parliamentary support from the Democratic Unionists would strip away her narrow majority, threatening her government with collapse.

Further down the line, some analysts said, the idea of a referendum in Northern Ireland on abortion could set a tricky precedent within the balance of power between London and the devolved administrations.

In the June 2016 British referendum that narrowly approved withdrawal from the European Union, Scottish voters favored remaining in the bloc. If a referendum were held permitting voters in Northern Ireland to choose their own destiny on abortion, some pro-European Scots might argue, why should Scotland be denied a voice on Europe?

And Britons who oppose Brexit would feel emboldened in strengthening their calls for a second referendum on the future relationship with Europe.

There are still formidable forces lined up against abortion rights in Northern Ireland, where nearly 90 percent of the population self-identified as Christian in the 2011 census and where church groups retain considerable political influence.

While young people in Ireland overwhelmingly supported repealing the abortion ban in the referendum there, at least one young voice could be heard Monday in Belfast in opposition to abortion. “I think some people will use it as contraception,” said Courtney Miller, 19. “There’s still a human inside you.”

But mirroring the majority sentiment in the Irish vote were a mother and daughter in the city.

“I was delighted,” said Emma Hallissey, 50, of the Irish referendum. “My sister-in-law campaigned for the yes vote. The North has a lot to learn from the South.”

“There’s still that ingrained loyalty to politics that are not very forward thinking,” she added. “It’ll be a long time before people sort out their politics and become more liberal minded.”

Her daughter, Eabha, 11, then piped up, saying: “Why can the South have abortion rights but not the North? We’re on the same island but we’re split up.”


An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the group ROSA. It supports abortion rights; it is not an anti-abortion group.

Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura reported from Belfast, and Alan Cowell from London.

Source: NYT > World

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