SDLP veteran: leader’s stance on abortion has disappointed grassroots

Alban Maginness was MLA for North Belfast for 18 years, and favours no change to abortion laws in NI
Alban Maginness was MLA for North Belfast for 18 years, and favours no change to abortion laws in NI

A veteran SDLP figure has said that there is surprise and disappointment among the party’s grassroots members over the leader’s recently-declared stance on relaxing abortion law.

Alban Maginness also said the major debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday – which essentially saw the DUP pitted against an array of pro-choice Conservative and Labour MPs – was an example of “the tsunami of pressure and propaganda” that threatens to overwhelm resistance to a more liberal abortion regime in Northern Ireland.

Colum Eastwood said he was both 'pro-life' and backed the repeal campaign

Colum Eastwood said he was both 'pro-life' and backed the repeal campaign

The strongly pro-life stalwart, who was MLA for Belfast North from 1998 until his retirement in 2016, was reflecting on the fact that SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had come out in public support for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution – something the Republic’s voters then decisively endorsed on May 25.

The Irish government pledged if repeal went ahead it would draw up a law to allow terminations up to 12 weeks without giving a reason, and up to 24 weeks if there is risk of “serious harm to the health of the pregnant woman”.

On May 19, the SDLP had held a conference at which it “reaffirmed our position as a pro-life party”, but simultaneously “supported freedom of conscience voting” on the subject.

Days later on May 21, Colum Eastwood told BBC Newsline he “would be pro-life”, then went on to say he “would support ‘Repeal the Eighth’” – paving the way for widespread abortion in the Republic.

Rev Hayden Foster

Rev Hayden Foster

Mr Maginness (who joined the SDLP in the early 1970s, and is a former Lord Mayor of Belfast) told the News Letter: “The party I think is strongly pro-life, and I think it’ll continue to be pro-life in the way it votes in the Assembly.

“He [Mr Eastwood] is within a minority position within the party, which is I think a difficulty for him.

“I think people like Colum a lot within the party. And I think within the party people are probably a little bit surprised at his public position.”

While there is no “surge” to get rid of him as leader, when it comes to the party’s grassroots “there’d be a degree of disappointment” about his position.

“Those that I’ve spoken to, yes, there is disappointment,” he said.

When it comes to the Commons debate on Tuesday, which left the DUP looking isolated in its views, Mr Maginness said: “It’s just part of the tsunami of pressure and propaganda to bring about abortion to Northern Ireland in the wake of the southern referendum result, which was very disappointing and which in itself applies a lot of pressure in Northern Ireland.

“In the Commons at this moment in time, there’s widespread consensus across all parties in favour of abortion, so anybody that puts forward a pro-life position is going to get a hostile reception – and that’s what it was for the DUP.”

Mr Maginness said the “substance” of the DUP’s arguments were “alright” during the sometimes-fiery debate (which saw Sammy Wilson face heckles as he declared that Northern Irish law has saved about 100,000 people from being aborted then “discarded and put in a bin”).

However, Mr Maginness said adopting a more “moderate, sympathetic” tone would have been better.

Mr Maginness also said that the rights of unborn childrenhave been “completely ignored” during discussions on abortion in general.

A News Letter analysis of Tuesday’s three-hour Commons debate – the written record of which runs to about 30,000 words – found the word “unborn” was used 15 times.

Twelve of mentions were by the DUP, one from a Tory backbencher, one from the Northern Ireland Secretary (who talked of “unborn foetuses”), and one from an SNP MP – who in turn was referring to something the DUP said.

Mr Maginness’ comments about the SDLP’s abortion stance follow those of ex-leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell. He previously told the BBC he “can’t make much sense” of the party’s current position, summing it up as: “We’re pro-life – but you can do your own thing.”

He told the News Letter both he and “the vast majority of the rank and file members are very robustly pro-life”.

In direct contrast to Mr Eastwood’s views, in the run up to the Republic’s abortion referendum veteran SDLP figure Seamus Mallon told the News Letter: “If I were voting there, I’d be voting ‘No’ because of the terms imposed with this, or which may be imposed with it – terms of termination at up to 12 weeks.”

The SDLP issued a statement in the name of Mr Eastwood, which said: “Mr Maginness, like all party members, is entitled to express his own viewpoint on the matter.

“On May 19 2018, the party reaffirmed its pro-life stance and also voted in favour to allow a conscience vote on this very issue.

“This policy ensures that those who may hold a minority view are free to express that view without hindrance.”