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Red Hand

An Ulster Miscellany


For a long time the two issues that appeared to enjoy cross-party support in Northern Ireland (apart from horror of bauble-free direct rule) were one-off housing and visceral anti-abortionism.

Now Sinn Fein appears to take a more nuanced approach to abortion. As do the courts.

The Belfast High Court has ruled that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights law. Until now termination of pregnancy has only been allowed if a woman’s life was at risk or (unlike in the South) there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

In a tragic case of foetal anencephaly, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had brought the case to extend abortion to cases of serious foetal malformation, rape or incest. The British 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s Attorney General John Larkin said in a brief statement that he was “profoundly disappointed” by the decision and was “considering the grounds for appeal”.

In his ruling, Judge Horner said women who were the victims of sexual crime and cases of fatal foetal abnormality were entitled to exemptions in the law. He said that the issue was unlikely to be addressed by the Northern Ireland Executive in the foreseeable future, and that Northern Ireland citizens were entitled to “have their [European Convention on Human] rights protected by the courts”.

In early 2015, Sinn Féin effectively vetoed efforts in the Northern Ireland Assembly to prevent the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast from performing abortions. The party whip, Caitríona Ruane (MLA for South Down), claimed the move by the DUP’s Paul Givan and the SDLP’s Alban Maginness was “an attempt to restrict the right of a woman to obtain a termination in life-threatening circumstances”.


The deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin to save the North’s Executive has allowed the Westminster Parliament to vote through cuts for the North, including to Social Welfare. It is, however, promised that £345 million will be put aside for the next four years to top up payments for claimants who lose out in the changes.

However, Green Party Assembly member Steven Agnew has derided Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey who, in a written answer, told Agnew that the Social Security Agency paid out approximately £80m per year in its Discretionary Fund over the last four years and that this fund would be redeployed for Social Welfare. In effect, protection seems to be robbing one set of claimants to pay another. Agnew said top-up money appeared to be “the renaming of an already existing budget”.

robins on his way

One of the biggest beasts of Northern politics, Peter Robinson, has slipped quietly into the good night of political death. Robinson was one of the toughest political scrappers going: however, the constant rumour of scandal and declining health combined to sap his vigour.

Although it is rumoured Gerry Adams contributed to expediting his goodbye at end of his final question time as First Minister, the Sinn Féin Front Bench joined the DUP in giving him a standing ovation.

That’s a sign of how the two parties are interdependent. Were the Northern Executive a family, their relationship is so dysfunctional social services would be sent in.

However, both know they face disaster if the Executive falls. If people reflect too hard on the political extremities they might finish up voting in some moderates.

They are not made whole

Colm Eastwood’s defeat of uncharismatic Alasdair McDonnell in the SDLP leadership election was a sign of that party’s desperation. The Assembly election is due in May: parties very seldom dump a leader – no matter how poorly performing – so soon before an election. McDonnell’s defeat was particularly humiliating because many of the party’s ‘ABA’ (Anybody But Alasdair) tendency had walked away.

The SDLP is haemorrhageing members as well as votes and Eastwood will lead the party away from its middle-class, middle-aged roots to a greener and more leftist future. When Margaret Ritchie was elected leader five years ago, 409 delegates voted. When 32-year-old Eastwood overthrew MacDonnell, only 305 did. Eastwood succeeds McDonnell, Margaret Ritchie, Mark Durkan, John Hume and Gerry Fitt, in that order.

Quinn again

There was little coverage in the South of the conviction of Quinn Building Products for the death of 24-year-old Fermanagh GAA star Brian Óg Maguire from head injuries in its Derrylin factory. The company, bought last year from IBRC and US bondholders by a holding company which is reinstating the exciting old Quinn regime, pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the safety of an employee and maintain work equipment. Omagh Crown Court found the company’s procedures were inadequate, and “the equipment used was defective”.

The judge pointed out that the company had been convicted for the death of another worker in 1997, when it was called Sean Quinn Quarries.

road to nowhere you’d know

The Executive has announced it is to contribute £75m (€106.5m) to build a nine-mile stretch of dual carriageway from Ballymagorry, north of Strabane, Co Tyrone, to Newbuildings, south of Derry City. The proposed road is part of the proposed A5, from the Monaghan-Tyrone Border to Newbuildings, the North’s largest ever road project.

Two years ago a judicial review overturned the decision to grant this planning permission for failure to carry out an appropriate assessment of the Rivers Foyle and Finn Special Areas of Conservation under the EU Habitats directive..

The Executive’s determination to go ahead with the dual carriageway is mysterious. No part of the existing A5 is among the North’s 50 busiest stretches of road. Options of developing the existing road were dismissed, while expanding public transport was not even considered.

Case meant to be

The GAA’s proposed 38,000-seater Casement Park stadium in West Belfast is enmired in a bitter planning battle. Residents feel they are being railroaded by the Corporate GAA. Anger at the proposal – and Sinn Féin’s support for it – was key to sweeping People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll onto Belfast City Council last year.

As a senior civil servant in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Rory Miskimmon was centrally involved in the project. Now he is leaving the Civil Service by the revolving door to work for the GAA as head of the Casement Park redevelopment project. Nice.

Anton McCabe