After the abortion-repeal referendum, there is momentum for change in the North, though DUP-dependent Theresa May has indicated she will not not facilitate it. It has made reluctant bed-fellows of DUP traditionalists and Catholic moral conservatives. DUP Assembly Member Jim Wells has had the DUP whip withdrawn for openly criticising the party leadership. “I’m anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion. I would be conservative, and maybe that’s not the new image the party wants”, he has said. Wells went to Dublin to take part in the ‘Save the Eighth’ march.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has noted support from former Sinn Féin voters disaffected by its stance on abortion, coming her party’s way. In early June Ian Paisley Jr tweeted: “I have a letter from a local priest in my constituency thanking the DUP for its stance on these issues and assuring me that he is urging his parishioners to vote DUP because of the stance we take on social matters”.
Up to 50% of the North’s Catholics are estimated to be socially conservative, to varying degrees, with 2% to 3%, mostly urban, being fundamentalists. A minority of these actually vote DUP, for moral reasons. On the other hand, however, there are internal strains in the DUP, with some in favour of allowing abortion in certain circumstances and moving away from Paisleyite fundamentalism.
Moreover, influence is not all one-way, with the recent West Tyrone by-election emboldening Sinn Féin to a Repeal stance. On May 3 Sinn Féin’s Órfhlaith Begley won that Westminster seat with a majority of just under 8,000. Pro-life campaigners ran a vigorous campaign targeting Sinn Féin in the election. The constituency is 68% Catholic, much of it rural and conservative.
Sinn Féin calculates that it only lost approximately 1,000 votes on the issue. It accepts that not all its voters supported the right to choose, but most seem prepared to accept the party position.
A factor was that Mary Lou McDonald came out clearly for repeal. Her statement may not have been as strong as most pro-choice campaigners would want, but it was clear. “Sinn Féin is campaigning in the upcoming referendum to remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constituion”, she said. “We are doing this because this is a public health matter. The Eighth Amendment should never have been put into the constitution because that was never the appropriate place to address issues of women’s health”.
It’s a long way from the IRA in the 1930s which declared that it would take its social policy from Papal encyclicals.
It’s even a big shift since the 2015 Westminster election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. There pro-lifers had targeted Sinn Féin. In response, it circulated a lea et in the name of Martin McGuinness: “I hold very strong personal views on the issue (abortion) myself and have always been and remain pro-life… As one of the leading parties in the Assembly, Sinn Féin will continue to block the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to the North”.
Despite this letter, sitting Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew lost her seat.
While there has been no vote in the North on the issue, the clear majority of ‘yes’ votes in Southern border counties is suggestive of attitudes in the North, even in rural areas. These are areas where communities straddle the Border, and most people have family on both sides. Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, is on the Border with South Fermanagh. It voted ‘yes’ by almost two-to-one. Clones, Co Monaghan, is surrounded on three sides by Fermanagh. All five polling booths had a ‘yes’ majority.
The same was true of parts of North Monaghan, physically, economically and socially intermeshed with Tyrone. The villages of Emyvale and Glaslough were strongly ‘yes’. That could be seen in East Donegal. Lifford, on the Border with Strabane, where most residents in several housing estates are from Strabane, voted 51% ‘yes’.
From Monaghan and Donegal, there are indications that many members of the Presbyterian Church, the North’s largest Protestant denomination, did not support their Church’s call for a ‘no’ vote.
In Aghabog, Co Monaghan, with a strong Presbyterian community, ‘yes’ took 160 votes to 140 ‘no.’ Nearby Drum is as Presbyterian and Orange a village as any in Ulster. It voted ‘no’, but narrowly, with 110 ‘yes’ and 119 ‘no’. In Monaghan even more than Donegal Presbyterians congregations are rural and doctrinally conservative. Thus, urban Protestants in the North could reasonably be assumed to be more pro-choice.
In the longer term, the Referendum result will modify attitudes in the North. A significant driving factor of Unionism is the genuine fear of ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’. Most Unionists would recognise there have been signi cant changes in the South, but would have certain doubts. This vote is proof of big change.
In the foreseeable future it is unlikely that any significant proportion of the Protestant population will move to support Irish unity. A 2016 BBC poll showed 72% of them (and 47% of Catholics) against. But even in conservative Northern Ireland, now be sieged to the South and East by abortion liberals, a wave of change is rolling.