Why Northern Ireland should not have the Irish Referendum result imposed on them by Westminster

Shami Chakrabarti has been on Radio 4’s Today programme discussing the Irish Referendum result, insisting that Theresa May should impose the same decision on Northern Ireland. Here is a clip:

John Humphrey’s was quite right to push her on one of the central points at issue. Northern Ireland has already voted on this issue quite recently and chosen to maintain their existing law. Despite Chakrabarti’s claim that this is ‘a human rights issue’, she presumably also believes democracy is one too. The Northern Irish people voted overwhelmingly not to liberalise their existing abortion law.

This is a devolved issue for the Northern Irish assembly and to impose a law on them from Westminster would undermine the fundamental democratic rights and process in the region. In fact, it would undermine that same right throughout the UK. If Westminster can happily throw off the shackles of democracy to impose laws on Northern Ireland that they have expressly rejected, what is to stop them choosing to do the same in Scotland or Wales? If they are willing to reject the democratic process in this way, they threaten their own legitimacy as a government. After all, they are only permitted to govern because of the democratic will of the people expressed at a General Election. But if General Elections, referenda and the will of the people may be overruled simply because a government decided so, that same government would undermine their own existence for they govern only by the will of the people. But if the will of the people may be overruled, what gives them the right to do any overruling?

Even beyond these principles, there are real and serious problems with simply imposing law from Westminster on Northern Ireland (whatever we think of the views being imposed). In short, it would be a highly dangerous move. As I previously noted here:

First, it is an obviously unifying issue between the Catholic and Protestant churches. The reformation was not fought over issues of when life begins and, as long as it has been an issue on the table altogether, Catholicism and Protestantism have been univocal in their agreement that life begins at conception. Whilst the two branches typically differ on the issue of intentional non-procreative sex, they are as one on the issue of when life begins and the rights of the unborn in the womb.

Second, as you would expect given the strong Catholic church and Protestant denominational lines on the issue, there is overwhelming cross-community support for the Northern Irish abortion laws as they currently stand. When the Northern Ireland Justice Department carried out a public consultation on relaxing the abortion laws in the region, 97% rejected any change in the law. Even the most cynical political party who cares nothing for community cohesion recognises they are on a hiding to nothing in seeking to change a law that has such overwhelming opposition from both communities.

This underlines the idiocy of those calling the DUP bigots over their abortion stance. All the major parties in Northern Ireland take a harder stance on abortion than the Great British parties. This is both for historic religious reasons as well as democratic electoral ones.

I went on to comment, particularly in respect to Labour’s call to impose English abortion laws on Northern Ireland:

Imagine my surprise – given the relative peace since 1998 and the the later 2006 power sharing agreement – to find Labour want to impose the Great British approach to abortion upon Northern Ireland. One of very few unifying issues in the region, between rival branches within Christendom, will jeopardise the peace in order to kill more children in utero and virtue signal to the world that they imposed right-thinking orthodoxy upon the Northern Irish savages. It is as though they have never read Gulliver’s Travels. The irony here is that the man who so vehemently advocated for Britain to hand the Falkland Islands over to Argentina on the grounds of anti-imperialism, wants to imperialistically impose a law on a region of the UK despite neither side wanting it nor the fact that the side Corbyn supported objects to imperialism from Britain in principle.

Not only is it foolish to believe that the DUP are bigots simply because they oppose relaxing the abortion laws – just like 97% of those who responded to a public consultation on the issue and all other parties in the region – it is destabilising to the region as a whole. The only thing worse for the region than a democratically elected party imposing a relaxation of a[n existing] law with overwhelming support, would be the imposition and overruling of that law by a British party. Even the DUP, British to their core, object to Home Rule. Imperialistic imposition overruling a multilaterally agreed position is unlikely to serve the cause of peace.

This is the fundamental problem with insisting on the imposition of UK abortion law on Northern Ireland.

This should hardly be surprising to us. It has become de rigueur to hold positions and stances, signalling to the world your right thinking on such matters. These have usually been in areas that have minimal knock-on consequences. Gay marriage is a good case in point. It had overwhelming support despite potentially benefitting around 1.5% of the country of which even a fraction of that figure have availed themselves of their new legislative rights. But, in truth, pushing that legislation through had minimal political impact and allows Britain to pretend that we are ‘leading the world’ in such areas, which some appear to believe permits us to lecture other cultures about their own social policies (unless, of course, we happen to enjoy selling them arms or buying their oil, in which case we are conspicuously silent on these things).

What is newer is the willingness to take these positions at the expense of other virtues one enjoys signalling, such as democracy and the rule of law. The cost of imposing abortion on Northern Ireland could be severe indeed. For it would not simply be a case of imposing a law that the majority don’t want, but would be to undermine the fragile democracy currently holding in the region. To undermine the devolved powers would be to undercut not just the Good Friday Agreement but the subsequent St Andrews Agreement that made power-sharing possible. The consequences of the Westminster govenment imposing law on Northern Ireland would have severe ramifications indeed. Only, in this particular case, it would please nobody.

What is particularly interesting is that Remainers – of which Shami Chakrabarti was one – are insistent that pursuing the democratic will of the people in respect to Brexit will endanger the peace in Northern Ireland. That argument would hold more water if they showed a similar concern regarding the potential to overrule the devolved democratic process in the region regarding abortion. But apparently, undermining the democratic process on issues which she happens to support, carries no such threat. Peace is only threatened, it seems, when the people democratically disagree with her!

Ironically, however, undermining Brexit and imposing liberalised abortion laws on Northern Ireland from Westminster will have the same basic effect. The former, of course, would be the less problematic. Northern Ireland, as a whole, did not vote to leave the EU and the border issue is a live one. But as the majority view themselves as British, to undermine a UK-wide vote taken in toto would cause a similar problem. The abortion issue is worse because it is one of few matters on which there is overwhelming cross-community support and on which there has been a recent referendum which rejected liberalising the law.

Nonetheless, at heart, the problem here is about undermining the democratic process and devolved powers. It is one thing to do that in Great Britain, such as you think you might get away with it, but only a colossal fool would do so in Northern Ireland – especially one claiming to be concerned about the fragile peace process and power-sharing agreement. We can call abortion a ‘human rights’ issue all we like, but democracy would appear to be one of those too and, incidentally one on which we all agree. It is, after all, one of our much vaunted ‘British values’.

If we are concerned about a hard-border threatening the peace, and it is a genuine question that needs addressing, do we really want to see what might happen if the British government move to overrule both a democratically elected devolved parliament and an overwhelmingly decisive referendum? It is a move likely to please nobody and carries the very real threat of demolishing the various agreements that those proposing the imposition insist they wish to maintain. Those who talk a good game of hating the violence regarding the border issue seem troublingly happy to risk the bombs and bullets for the right to do even worse in the womb.