Northern Ireland: A new era?

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[Written by John Tinneny]

[Image Credits: Original image accessed through Creative Commons (no image attribution). Edits by Florence Bridgman]

Despite having now reached over 1000 days without a standing government, Northern Ireland witnessed some significant changes to the law over the last few months. One of the most significant being the decriminalisation of abortion towards the end of October 2019, finally achieved after years of activists and organisations campaigning to bring the law into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that the real effects of this shift in policy won’t be noticeable just yet, with the major developments already taking place, it is clear that this was a watershed moment for the North.

This change in the law overturned the sections of the Offences against the Persons Act 1861 (that was still in effect in Northen Ireland) that made abortion illegal and was brought about by an amendment to the Northern Ireland bill, tabled by Connor McGinn and Stella Creasy in July 2019. This amendment stipulated that unless the Northern Irish assembly (which collapsed after a scandal over a renewable heating energy scheme linked to then First Minister Arlene Foster) was reestablished within a certain time frame, then decriminlisation of abortion — as well as legalisation of gay marriage — would come into effect on October 21.

As a last ditch attempt to prevent these reforms, attempts were made by the DUP to reestablish the NI Assembly on that day, but they were unsuccessful. Most of the other political parties refused to attend, declaring the action a ‘stunt’, and the DUP were unable to appoint a speaker without the support of a nationalist party. And so, at midnight, abortion laws in Northern Ireland were made to comply with those in the rest of the UK, replacing those that, to quote Siobhan McSweeney from Derry Girls, were ‘older than the invention of the lightbulb’.

One particular court case illustrates just how immediate this policy change has been. The so-called JR76 case involved a mother who bought abortion pills for her daughter in 2013. Her daughter had conceived a child while underage (at 15 years old) due to an abusive relationship. After the termination, the mother and daughter went to their GP in an attempt to access counselling and aftercare. However, because they disclosed to their doctor that the daughter had taken abortion pills, their GP was obliged by law to pass this information onto the authorities. This resulted in the mother being charged by the PPS, in the ‘public interest’, with procuring and supplying abortion drugs for her daughter.

On Monday 21 October, this woman (unnamed for legal reasons) faced a criminal trial and the possibility of up to five years in jail. The following day, she was called into court and was declared not guilty. Within the space of 24 hours, the crime which she potentially could have been tried in no longer existed — a fact she expressed great relief over, saying that not only would she be able to go back to her normal life, but also that the change in the law will allow other women and girls to deal with matters like this privately in their own family circle.” Indeed, as doctors now no longer have to report if any of their patients has had an abortion to the authorities, it will remain completely the business of the individual, subject to the same restrictions as England, Scotland, and Wales.

Other effects of this reform are not so sudden. In the interim period between now and the 31 March 2020, when new regulations must be put in place, following an ongoing consultation process, carried out by the Northern Ireland Office, abortion services will not be accesible in NI (although now accomodation and travel expenses will be covered by the government, in all cases, for those woman going to England, and cases of fatal foetal abnormality can be dealt with in Northern Ireland). But despite this wait and the signs of a backlash to abortion reform such as the silent protest at Stormont, there are just as many examples of counter protests in support of it and polls which indicate high support for decriminalisation of and a woman’s right to choose abortion. This thus indicates that there is seemingly a large section of the population who are in favour of this change in the political landscape.

As mentioned above, there was a consultation process for these new regulations which ended on 16 December. Between then and March 2020, many questions will be raised over what the new system in Northern Ireland will look like. Questions, for example, over conscientious objection of some doctors and exclusion zones around abortion clinics, future topics of discussion mentioned in the interim guidelines. What is certain, however, is that an abortion service will be available, whatever form it may take. It will be a reality, and a major shift from the past for the women of Northern Ireland, many of which fought long and hard for this goal and have finally succeeded in achieving it.


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