An ex-SDLP councillor who left the party over a row centring on abortion protests has said its stance on terminations today is “very difficult to try and comprehend”.
It is thought to be the first time the Pat Convery – a long-serving SDLP man who was the party’s group leader in Belfast – has spoken out in such detail on the subject of abortion since he quit in 2017 after being suspended by the leadership.
His comments this week came after all 14 SDLP councillors in Newry, Mourne and Down District Council issued a joint statement which “re-affirmed their pro-life position”.
All these developments stem from positions adopted by the SDLP and its leader just ahead of the Republic’s abortion referendum.
Firstly, the party had announced that whilst it was formally retaining its label of being a “pro-life party”, it would let members vote however they want on the subject.
Secondly, leader Colum Eastwood declared that he was in favour of repealing the Irish Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, paving the way for widespread abortion in the Republic, whilst also declaring himself to be “pro-life”.
These stances have drawn criticism from ex-leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell and retired MLA Alban Maginness, respectively.
Now Alderman Convery, who was an SDLP councillor from around the turn of the millennium and a former Belfast lord mayor, has said: “The party is retaining their pro-life position. However, they’re giving the membership and elected representatives a conscience clause.
“I find the two things are contradictory, personally speaking.
“It’s something that’s very difficult to try and comprehend... what has been agreed just seems to be wide open for any interpretation they so wish.
“At the end of the day, if the party’s saying they’re pro-life, you can’t also then give the freedom of making it up as we go along.”
Mr Convery – plus colleagues Kate Mullan and Declan Boyle – defied an order from party HQ last year to back a Green Party motion condemning alleged efforts by anti-abortion protestors to carry out “intimidation” of people at abortion facilities.
Instead the trio abstained, were suspended, then quit – dealing a fierce blow to the standing of the SDLP in the city, which only held seven council seats to begin with.
Alderman Convery later said he had abstained because people had written to him interpreting the vote not as being about intimidation, which he condemns, but as being about access to abortion itself – so he felt it conflicted with the SDLP’s pro-life policy.
He told the News Letter his view is that “both lives matter”, and stressed that he wants to see more support for women facing crisis pregnancies, such as counselling for mothers who opt to have the child.
Since the government has seen fit to offer NI women free abortions on the British mainland, he said, “they should be able to support organisations that are giving those same people the opportunity to go the full term”.
Meanwhile, at Newry, Mourne and Down’s monthly council meeting on Tuesday, SDLP councillor Michael Savage declared that he and all 13 of his colleagues were “unapologetically pro-life”.
He said “the SDLP, contrary to some media interpretations, is and has been from its inception a pro-life party”, and he wanted to “re-assure all our party supporters out there”.
He added that whilst he disagrees with Mr Eastwood over the matter: “I respect his views and he respects mine.”