National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

For No. Ireland’s Unborn, ‘Good Friday’ Peace Accord Has a Dark Side

BY Cian Molloy

August 30-September 5, 1998 Issue | Posted 8/30/98 at 1:00 PM


DUBLIN, Ireland—One might think that everyone would fully welcome Northern Ireland's Good Friday Agreement, but pro-lifers say the agreement is bad news for the unborn.

Since April 1987, it has been the policy of the British Labor Party to extend the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. The party is now in power and the Good Friday Agreement, once enacted into UK law, will give it the ability to go ahead with its plans. Northern Ireland escaped the “abortion-on-demand” that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom, because when the Abortion Act was passed by the Westminster parliament, Northern Ireland had its own independent assembly.

Even when the Northern Ireland Assembly fell in 1972 and the province came under direct rule from Westminster, successive British governments avoided liberalizing the province's abortion laws because Britain claimed — and still claims — to rule in Northern Ireland by consensus. The desire to promote this view also helped the province escape the deeply unpopular poll tax and cuts in spending on public housing and social services introduced elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

But the need to maintain the artifice of consensus ended with the Good Friday Agreement, which allows for the creation of a new assembly to govern Northern Ireland's affairs. Though the new assembly's members have already been elected, the assembly will not have law-making powers until the Northern Ireland Bill is passed in Westminster. This will happen soon after the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, reconvene in October after their summer break. Under the terms of the agreement, the new Northern Ireland assembly has powers over most of the areas controlled by a national government. The one major exception is criminal legislation which was included in the agreement to allay fears that former terrorists would have control over security matters.

The pro-abortion groups were told to stay out of the limelight and not make any public statements on liberalizing abortion law.

However, in the UK abortion law is part of criminal legislation. This means that the Northern Ireland Assembly will not have any control over the regulation of abortion facilities and, once the agreement is enacted, the UK parliament will have the clear right to impose abortion laws on the province.

According to the pro-choice journalist Eamonn McCann, this loophole in the Good Friday Agreement was deliberately kept quiet by the British government. He claims the pro-abortion group Voices for Choice were told by the British government's Northern Ireland Office to stay out of the limelight and not make any public statements on liberalizing abortion law before the two referenda on the Good Friday Agreement took place.

In recent years, the British Labor Party has become increasingly pro-abortion. At present, the party's selection procedures militate against pro-life candidates. An internal party fund, named Emily's List, provides additional campaign funding to female candidates on one condition: that they support legal abortion. Because of their access to additional campaign funding from Emily's List, party branches are more likely to select pro-choice candidates. The irony is that the fund is named after the 19th-century women's suffragette Emily Pankhurst who was also a leading Victorian pro-lifer who described abortion as “an abomination.”

Despite Labor's massive parliamentary majority in Westminster, Labor Members of Parliament (MPs) are being subjected to a three-line whip when the house votes on the Northern Ireland Bill and on the proposal to extend the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. The three-line whip, a party disciplinary procedure, demands that all Labor MPs attend the House of Commons for the debate and vote according to the party line. To do otherwise, would mean expulsion from the party. In the past, Westminster MPs were allowed to vote ‘according to conscience’ on abortion legislation.

When the bill creating a new devolved Scottish Assembly was placed before the House of Lords last July, a similar whip was placed on government peers demanding that they vote against an amendment that would give Scotland control over its abortion law. Because of the whip, the amendment was defeated by almost two-to one and Scottish abortion law remains under the control of London.

There is no doubt that abortion is opposed by the majority of people in Northern Ireland. Abortion is opposed by all the major political parties in the Northern Irish Assembly except for members of the Women's Coalition and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. Nuala Scarrisbrick, who was named a Dame of St. Gregory by the Pope in 1994 for her pro-life activities, told the Register: “The sanctity of human life is the one thing that politicians of every hue, nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, agree on. Abortion is the one issue where you will find the Rev. Ian Paisley sharing a platform with Catholic campaigners. I am not surprised Sinn Fein are pro-abortion, they have been connected with enough killing in the past. But the people of Northern Ireland don't want abortion, the pressure is coming from England.”

Betty Gibson of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) in Belfast agrees: “The majority of the people, whether orange [unionist] or green [nationalist], are not in favor of killing babies. We've come through 30 years of very terrible trouble and the majority of people in Northern Ireland have never lost their respect for life.”

Bernie Smyth of the Northern Irish pro-life group Precious Life points out that in the past 30 years more people have died in the United Kingdom because of abortion than have died because of the violence in Northern Ireland.

“Since the 1967 Act, 3 million babies have been killed before they were born, the Northern Ireland Troubles have only led to just over 3,000 deaths,” she said. “These are the facts we are trying to highlight to prevent abortion being forced on Northern Ireland, but the government's plans have been kept quiet to make sure the Good Friday Agreement succeeds. In the politics of Northern Ireland, the peace process comes before everything else, including the life of the unborn.”

Among pro-life politicians there is a great deal of confusion over whether or not they can stop the Labor Party in London from forcing a liberal abortion regime on Northern Ireland. Ian Paisley Jr. of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) told Precious Life he believes little can be done. However, the Rev. Geoffrey Donaldson of the Unionist Party says he thinks the House of Lords may succeed in amending the bill so that a referendum on abortion would have to take place in Northern Ireland beforehand.

In the House of the Lords, the rebellion against the government is being led by Peer Lord Alton, a Catholic who hopes to succeed in amending the legislation so that powers over abortion legislation are devolved to the new Assembly in Belfast. Lord Alton says he has been informed by Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative's chief whip, that the proposal would be the first item for debate in the House of Lords when the peers return from their summer recess. However, the Liverpool pro-lifer is confident that his group can stage a major revolt against the British government, saying: “I hope the initiative will come from both sides of the divide.”

Cian Molloy writes from Dublin, Ireland.