Dr Jennifer Thomson is a lecturer in comparative politics in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.
From the advent of devolution in the late 1990s, to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ policies under the Coalition, British state architecture has undergone a radical programme of decentralisation across successive governments in the last twenty years. The impact that this has had on party politics, on nationalist sentiment in the respective nations, and on the economic development of the country has been well documented. Yet the implications that this has for women’s presence in formal politics, and for the substantive representation of women’s needs and rights has largely been unconsidered, by politics scholarship and policymakers alike.
In my recent book, Abortion Law and Political Institutions: Explaining policy resistance, I explore the gendered nature of multi-level governance in the United Kingdom through the case study of abortion law in Northern Ireland. The 1967 Abortion Act which governs termination of pregnancy in the rest of the United Kingdom was never extended to Northern Ireland. As such, it provides a key case study by which we can address gendered policymaking in the complex devolved set-up in the contemporary UK.
Under current laws, a woman in Northern Ireland cannot automatically have a termination if she has been raped, is the victim of incest, or is carrying a pregnancy with a fatal foetal abnormality. She can only have a legal abortion in the region if there is a real and long-term risk to her physical or mental health. Guidelines for medical professionals on the procedure have only been available since 2016, meaning that doctors and midwives have long been in the dark about exactly what they can do when faced with a woman with a crisis pregnancy.
In 2017 the government announced plans to allow women who have travelled from Northern Ireland to access abortion for free on the NHS in England, although they still have to pay for any travel and accommodation. In 2018, the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly changed its constitution via public referendum to allow for abortions to be legal for the first time in its history. Northern Ireland now remains as one small bastion of anti-choice legislation in Western Europe.
The book forwards three main arguments for how we can understand this restrictive situation vis-à-vis abortion law in the context of the complex multi-level governance set-up that Northern Ireland finds itself in.
Inter-institutional relationships are key to thinking about women’s substantive representation in multi-level governance
Since the advent of devolution, there has been great interest in the (generally) much higher numbers of women elected to the devolved institutions (Holyrood, Cardiff and Stormont) compared to Westminster. In the 2003 devolved election, Cardiff returned 50% female AMs. Until Kezia Dugdale stepped down as leader of Scottish Labour in 2017 all three of the major political parties in Scotland were lead by a woman.
As a result of this feminised presence in the devolved bodies, most academic attention has focused on the new institutions themselves, asking what conditions exist to have encouraged this level of female representation. Relations between the individual institutions and the centre, and the gendered implications that exist, have largely been overlooked.
My book argues that the relationship between Stormont and Westminster is important when it comes to gendered policy issues, because the devolved administration provides an excuse for Wesminster to avoid difficult policy areas. Northern Ireland has diverged from legislation and policy on a number of gendered issues – abortion and same sex marriage most notably. Yet Westminster has routinely, and across successive governments, remained quiet on these issues and on calls for it to act. Even when international obligations or human rights commitments might suggest otherwise, it has deferred authority to Stormont. The complex multi-level set-up thus forms a way in which Westminster can avoid responsibility or involvement in controversial political areas such as abortion.
The type of institution affects the way women’s rights are addressed
Northern Ireland’s devolved institution at Stormont was both part of the broader transformation of the UK state through devolution and the culmination of a long peace process. It has thus always performed two roles – one, as part of the continuing project of UK devolution; and two, as part of attempts to cement peace and post-conflict stability in the region. As a result of this, Stormont was established around very different principles from Holyrood or Cardiff. Stormont is a consociational or power-sharing Assembly, meaning that all MLAs must self-designate as Nationalist or Unionist within the institution and, under certain circumstances, a weighted majority of each side must vote favourably in order for legislation to pass. Elections still largely form a pattern in which Catholics overwhelmingly vote for Nationalist parties and Protestants for Unionist ones.
This dominance of ethno-nationalism to elected politics in Northern Ireland means that it is difficult to encourage discussion of other types of political identity (such as gender) onto the agenda. Given the centrality of the constitutional question to political discussion and voting patterns, and how national identity is institutionalised into the structure of the Assembly, promoting a debate around ‘other’ issues, such as abortion, is hard. Women’s policy issues reach across the ethno-national divide but politics are not structured in such a way as to foment movement on them.
The continuing political division in Northern Ireland is gendered
There is a growing academic appreciation of the so-called “culture wars” in contemporary Northern Ireland. Yet the way in which certain issues – again, abortion and same-sex marriage in particular – map on to the existing ethno-national cleavage in Northern Ireland has not been fully explored. Same-sex marriage is now firmly a Nationalist-Unionist issue, with Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party, strongly in favour of it, and the DUP, the largest unionist party, strongly opposed. Indeed, the DUP have used the petition of concern (a specific feature of the consociational Assembly designed to stop Nationalists or Unionists legislating against areas of particular cultural sensitivity) five times to stop same sex marriage laws from passing.
Likewise, positions on abortion are now reflected in the political division. The DUP remain strongly opposed to any change in Northern Ireland’s strict legislation. Sinn Féin, following a policy change at last year’s Ard Fheis, now support abortion under certain circumstances. Sinn Féin President Mary Lou Macdonald, and leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill, were pictured in Dublin Castle following the Irish referendum on the 8th amendment, holding aloft a sign that said “The north is next”. The nationalist-unionist division in Northern Irish politics is now clearly designated by support for abortion liberalisation on one side and opposition on the other. Given the level of public and media attention afforded to it, this politicisation of abortion does not bode well for future attempts for the two main parties to work together on this issue – let alone restore the still suspended Assembly. My book therefore shows that thinking about gendered political issues is not of peripheral importance, but fundamental to how the political schism in Northern Ireland is developing.
With Brexit continuing to rumble on, and fundamental questions remaining over the shape of the Irish border, Northern Ireland faces the rockiest political landscape it has seen in years. Against this backdrop, abortion is likely to receive little political attention in the coming months. The quiet injustice that Northern Irish women face does not look set to be remedied any time soon.