Thursday 21 November 2019

Donal Lynch: 'The North's abortion and gay marriage reforms ring hollow'

In the Republic we had catharsis, but the North had to make do with mere change, writes Donal Lynch

Sara Canning (front centre), partner of murdered journalist Lyra McKee, marching with protesters through Belfast city centre demanding same sex marriage in the North. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sara Canning (front centre), partner of murdered journalist Lyra McKee, marching with protesters through Belfast city centre demanding same sex marriage in the North. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

In some ways it felt like a moment of sweet success: gay marriage and abortion finally legal in Northern Ireland, and all in one go. With the bonus on top of it all happening on the DUP's watch and Ian Paisley Sr likely spinning in his grave. Ulster now has everything he hated because his party won't govern and got just what they've been demanding all through Brexit: total regulatory alignment with the rest of the UK. The irony sent social media into paroxysms of pleasure.

True to form, the DUP went down with one last strangulated 'No!' Arlene Foster left Stormont fulminating that this wasn't the end of the matter. She issued a stern plea to those who were inclined to celebrate, "to think of those who are sad today and who consider this an affront to human dignity", but if you did feel at all sad for her it was because she seemed like a woman in the midst of an identity crisis. Her visceral opposition to the civilising laws of the UK showed, once again, that she and her ilk are Northerners first, and Britons second.

She might take cold comfort from the fact that the reaction to the changes in the laws were somewhat muted by comparison with the scenes that greeted the abortion and gay marriage referendum results in the South.

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Sky News doggedly tracked down a few happy couples who are already planning 2020 nuptials, but there was no great outpouring of emotion, no dancing in the streets, as we saw in Dublin last year and in 2015.

There was, inevitably, a lingering feeling that Northern liberals had won by default. The North still has higher levels of popular opposition to gay marriage than the Republic and the rest of the UK, particularly in unionist communities. Attitudes to abortion are more broadly similar to the South but there is still sizeable opposition - a petition of more than 10,000 signatures was delivered to Theresa May last summer in opposition to the proposed liberalising of abortion laws.

The biggest political party, the DUP, is also staunchly opposed to it, so, while it's an important issue, it wasn't important enough for people to vote on it.

There are many unionists who favoured liberalising gay marriage laws but still voted for the arch-right DUP because, despite everything, they consider them the best bulwark against Sinn Fein.

Better, they think, to have a few red-faced social conservatives in power than a party of left-wing nationalists. The whole story of Northern Ireland has been one of important social issues being jostled aside in the conflict between unionist and nationalist communities.

The great shame, in this context, is that there was no room for the North to have their own referendums, because, unlike in the South, there was no constitutional barrier to abortion or gay marriage.

Even if a plebiscite had been held, it would not have been binding. Change, when it came, could only have come through either the courts, the assembly itself - assuming it was up and running - or from Westminster.

This is what makes what happened last week a sort of tainted triumph. While we in the South had catharsis, the North had to make do with mere change. For the society to really move on with big social issues, the rats, to use Graham Norton's famous phrase, have to be driven into the corner of the barn. The North's rats are rather bigger and louder, however. For misogyny and homophobia we can't hold a candle to them. A real public debate on gay marriage and abortion would have been painful but necessary. Foster and her brethren needed to be forced to look the women and gay people of Northern Ireland in the eye and explain to them exactly why they should not be equal.

Instead, it looks like the North's liberal revolution was somebody else's idea. Despite the good work of many activists there, it didn't come from the region's politicians or its people, it was imposed from outside. It lacks the finality of a referendum result and it was that which gave an ominous edge to Foster's voice when she last week warned "it's not over".

But maybe those were, after all, just fighting words. The real hardcore homophobia of yesteryear has waned somewhat in Northern Ireland - the Pride parade there is now almost as corporate as the one in Dublin and draws in clerics and police to its marchers.

There have also been tiny signs that the DUP has been liberalising in recent years, the party fielded their first openly gay candidate earlier this year. They may also be aware that these issues - gay marriage and abortion - aren't particularly important to most of their voters. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, has found itself in support of a parliament that it boycotts.

Social issues are not merely about changes in the law, they are about shifts in hearts and minds and when something is as dogged as the North's homophobia, it needs the special salve of democratic change to drive it out.

Without the stamp of the people and its assembly, gay marriage and abortion will still be vexed questions in Northern Ireland.

And the debate about them, long since put to bed in the South, will continue to rumble on there.

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