By Simon Basketter
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Northern Ireland—how Britain rules a last outpost of empire

This article is over 5 years, 10 months old
Issue 2607
Stormont (Pic: Iker Merodio/Flickr)

Why isn’t Northern Ireland in Ireland?

Britain created Northern Ireland in 1921, when resistance forced it to quit the rest of Ireland.

Six counties in the North were formed into a one-party state born in violence. Security forces terrorised the minority Catholic population. The Unionists, who ran Northern Ireland, declared that it would be “a Protestant state for a Protestant people”.

The Northern Irish state enshrined Britain’s policy of divide-and-rule. It relegated Catholics to being third class citizens—after the Protestant elite and Protestant workers.

What caused violence during “The Troubles”?

The Troubles started in Derry where Unionists ruled over the city’s majority Catholic population by gerrymandering electoral boundaries.

Police baton-charged peaceful Civil Rights marchers off the streets of Derry in October 1968.

In 1969 the scale of resistance meant the Unionist regime couldn’t keep control. The Labour government sent in British troops to prop up the Northern Ireland state—and soon they started killing Catholic civilians.

The Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) emerged in response to this repression.

So why did it stop?

The violence of the Northern Ireland state provoked a quarter of a century of open conflict.

By the mid-1990s British governments had realised that they could not defeat the IRA by force.

Equally, the IRA weren’t going to defeat the British state so there was stalemate.

Protests by ordinary people gave the spur for the peace process. At the same time Britain wanted to stabilise Northern Ireland. So they pushed Unionist politicians into accepting that peace talks had to take place—and that

Sinn Fein republicans had to be part of the process.

What was the peace deal?

The peace in Northern Ireland is not based on drawing Protestants and Catholics together, but on policing people apart.

The consensus reinforces segregation by insisting that opposed “communities” must be represented by politicians

who fight for one group against the other.

So everyone elected to the Stormont assembly has to identify themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. Principles of “parallel consensus” and “weighted majority” then come into play.

This effectively means that all important decisions have to gain majority support from both Unionists and Nationalists.

The “others” are simply forgotten about.

Why don’t women have abortion rights in Northern Ireland?

The 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortions in Britain, doesn’t apply in Northern Ireland.

By banning abortions, Northern Ireland exports them instead. Hundreds of women—at least 724 in 2016 alone—travel to England each year.

Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt said denying women NHS care showed respect for the Northern Ireland Assembly

Tory health secretary Jeremy Hunt said denying women NHS care showed “respect” for the Northern Ireland Assembly (Pic: Flickr/Ted Eytan)

In Northern Ireland opinion polls show about three-quarters of the public support abortion reform and equal marriage.

The Tories could legislate to bring in abortion rights in Northern Ireland, but they say it is a devolved matter.

But why hasn’t this changed since the Act was brought in?

In Northern Ireland legislation needs two majorities—unionist and nationalist. That means a party such as the DUP, with just over a quarter of the vote, can block any issue if it chooses.

When the Stormont assembly was up and running, the DUP used what’s called a “Petition of Concern” more than 80 times to veto reforms. When the assembly narrowly voted in favour of equal marriage in 2015, the DUP used a veto to delay its introduction.

The assembly collapsed partially over this—but mostly over a corruption scandal and attacks on the Irish language.

Are only the bigots of the DUP to blame?

While most focus has rightly been on the bigots of the DUP, they aren’t the only block to change.

Sectarianism is still a strong force in Northern Ireland, as testified to by this Loyalist mural in Sandy Row, Belfast

Sectarianism is still a strong force in Northern Ireland, as testified to by this Loyalist mural in Sandy Row, Belfast

The Tories are happy to push legislation over devolved governments when it suits them. But they need the DUP’s support to stay in office.

After the Irish repeal vote, a lot of politicians have discovered they are for change.

Sinn Fein supported repeal in the South, but it was arguing over it as recently as six months ago. In Northern Ireland it voted to back abortion only in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality in 2015.

It is still against the extension of the 1967 Act as it is British legislation. But Sinn Fein politicians holding up a “North is next” sign at the referendum result in Dublin suggests the line may change.

The nationalist SDLP only permitted members to oppose its anti-choice policy as a matter of conscience as of 19 May. Yet its leader called for a “fit for purpose” abortion law so that “the days of exporting this issue are brought to an end” last week.

People before Profit and the Greens who each had one assembly member, are pro-choice.

The drive for change will come from below, not Stormont or Westminister.

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