Sam McBride: Abortion dilemma for DUP traditionalists extends to question of devolution itself

DUP MLA Jim Wells
DUP MLA Jim Wells
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Depending on one’s point of view, MPs’ use of a bland Northern Ireland bill to suddenly legalise abortion could be viewed either as a piece of legislative ingenuity or a dastardly abuse of process.

Since Stella Creasy’s and Conor McGinn’s amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill passed last week opened the way for abortion and same-sex marriage to be legalised, the DUP has been denouncing what it has described as a “hijacking” of the bill which undermines devolution.

But, as the DUP’s wanton use of the petition of concern veto mechanism to even save its own members from censure demonstrates, Arlene Foster’s party plays politics in a robust manner, pushing some of the rules to the very limits.

And, in the absence of Stormont, the party has for more than a year been calling for full direct rule rather than the creeping direct rule which we have had.

Had that happened abortion and same-sex marriage would likely have been among the first issues legislated for at Westminster.

Now, having comprehensively lost the abortion and same-sex arguments at Westminster, the DUP is likely to face an unwelcome three months of pressure from pro-life groups to compromise in order to get Stormont back by 21 October - because that would quash the legislation passed at Westminster.

That has already started from several of the pro-life groups who – as their ability to gather 19,000 signatures in just over a week shows – are well-resourced and motivated.

There is no guarantee that what they are seeking is even possible. Sinn Féin wants same-sex marriage and at least some liberalisation of the abortion law.

Therefore, it would be politically problematic for Mary Lou McDonald if she was to strike a deal with the DUP which restored Stormont but blocked those changes.

There is the further complication for the DUP to weigh that if it does not agree to an Irish language act at Stormont it may, as this week demonstrates, be imposed over its head by Westminster.

Nevertheless, the situation is a fundamental dilemma for some DUP members in particular, who - largely for religious reasons – abhor abortion but who also strongly oppose an Irish language act, the likely price of getting Stormont back.

Some of the party’s members only backed power-sharing with Sinn Féin as a means to block abortion.

Veteran DUP MLA Jim Wells (who has had the whip withdrawn over a row with the leadership) is a bellwether for the DUP’s most staunchly anti-abortion voices. Yesterday he was reluctant to clearly answer whether – even if hypothetically – he would prioritise abortion above an Irish language act.

But he seemed to lean against a hasty deal to restore Stormont, expressing the concern that if the DUP compromised on Irish it would be a “sign of weakness” and even if it blocked abortion and same-sex marriage now, Sinn Féin could collapse Stormont at a future point to secure those changes.

He went on: “At the time of devolution in 2007, I was seriously considering resigning from the party [over power-sharing with Sinn Fein] but the bit which clinched it for me was that some party members said to me ‘if you want to stop the killing of the unborn or euthanasia or gay marriage, the only way to do that is to be there in government using the petition of concern to veto it’.”

Mr Wells said that if the changes pass Westminster next week, “now the attraction of a mandatory coalition is far less attractive for people like me”.

That view is far from universal within the DUP, but if even a significant minority of DUP members adopt that stance, it could significantly complicate any future attempt by Arlene Foster to sell a compromise deal to restore Stormont.