'The North is Next' as it appears in print
(Source: my own)
“The North is Next” read the sign held aloft by Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald as the landslide victory of Ireland’s Repeal the 8th referendum was announced at Dublin Castle earlier this year. Though for some, there was the underlying feeling that not all Irish women had reason to celebrate. Whilst the Republic’s constitutional ban on abortion would now be lifted, the six north-eastern counties of Ulster remain faced with some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. In the last few years, the Republic has been a leading light across the world for becoming the first country to legalise same sex-marriage by popular vote and also electing an openly gay Taoiseach. A once devoutly Catholic state has become a liberal and progressive society, dwarfing its conservative and backward northern counterpart. The four small words that make up that alliterative slogan – “The North is Next” – are at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights on an all-Ireland scale.
Following a tireless campaign against a bitterly fought counter-movement from anti-choicers, the Republic voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution by 66.4% on 25th May. The Repeal movement sparked conversation around what was once a taboo topic, which had forced over 170,000 women to leave Ireland to access healthcare services elsewhere, usually in Britain. Merchandise such as jumpers with the ‘REPEAL’ logo and ‘Tá’ badges adorned activists in large cities and rural villages alike, on both sides of the border. Emigrants returned home in their thousands to vote and Northern Irish activists, the majority of whom could not vote in the referendum, worked diligently alongside their southern sisters to educate and campaign for reform. People bravely came forward to tell their stories and share their experiences for the first time, spurred on by the tragic loss of Savita Halappanavar who died after being denied an abortion at a Galway hospital. Activists sent out a strong message: this could never be allowed to happen again. This resounding call for change has echoed in Northern Ireland where abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances, including incest, foetal abnormality and rape.
The current abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is governed by the archaic Offences Against the Person Act which pre-dates the invention of the lightbulb. The province remains the only part of the UK where abortion remains illegal, as the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended. Pregnant people from the North can access free abortions on the NHS in Britain but not at home, leaving many unable to travel and faced with crisis pregnancies. The situation has been deemed incompatible with international human rights laws by the UN and does not reflect the opinions of the NI population, with 72% in favour of reform. Despite demands for change from Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, Prime Minister Theresa May insists that it is a devolved issue for the Stormont assembly so as not to alienate the staunchly anti-abortion DUP MPs propping up her Conservative government in Westminster. However, with DUP’s abuse of the petition of concern and the political impasse at Stormont reaching record lengths, change from a devolved government is unlikely any time soon.
Anyone active on social media will surely have seen the #TheNorthIsNext and #NowForNI hashtags, created by grassroots campaigners such as those who helped to secure a victory for abortion rights in the south. All-island activist groups like Abortion Rights Campaign Ireland and Alliance for Choice have led rallies in Belfast and Dublin and are championing the fight to secure adequate healthcare for Northern citizens. For Megan Gethin, member of Amnesty International at QUB, the fight for Irish abortion rights is only half over: “In terms of women’s healthcare, there is a lot to be done. I am optimistic about abortion reform in NI. At the moment, Brexit has taken full hold of our media news coverage and abortion decriminalisation is at the back of the agenda for many politicians in Westminster. Many English people are taken aback at the fact Northern Ireland does not have free, safe and legal abortion like the other parts of the UK. Public opinion shows we are ready for change. At this stage, it is politicians holding us back.”
The Repeal campaigner and Sligo native furthers this opinion, highlighting the solidarity of NI activists: “Repeal in the south mobilised a lot of activists who had never partaken in human rights issues before. I do think that the support from Northern Irish activists contributed greatly to the strength and power of Repeal and the ability to mobilise voters and activists along the border, especially in smaller towns. It is this cross-border co-operation with a combined interest at heart that pervaded throughout Repeal. The goal of abortion reform showcased the ability of people to come together in order to see real change. I do hope that the same mobilisation will be seen in the ‘The North Is Next’ movement. Many will be willing to put the same energy they invested into Repeal into abortion decriminalisation in the North.”
One thing remains clear: we will not be left behind.
A shorter edited version is available in the print version of The Gown student newspaper at QUB, where Megan Gethin's words are credited to QUB Amnesty International President Hannah Orr in error.