Until midnight on October 21, abortion was permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life was in danger. This differentiated the province from the rest of the U.K., where abortion has been legal and widespread since 1967. The heroic holdout is now at an end: Abortion and gay marriage have entered Northern Ireland by the back door.
Those trying to figure out what has been happening in Northern Ireland lately might be forgiven for scratching holes in their heads. Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party in the Stormont Assembly and for three decades the political wing of the Provisional IRA—which killed at least 1,500 people in the name of gaining independence from Britain—refused to reconvene that assembly to block the Westminster government’s introduction of abortion and gay marriage to the province by fiat.
In July, MPs at Westminster passed legislation requiring the government to liberalize abortion and extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland if the suspended devolved government in Belfast was not restored by October 21. That date having arrived, unionist politicians failed in a last-ditch attempt to keep the new laws from coming into effect: Their one-sided reconvening of the assembly foundered due to their inability to elect a speaker with cross-community backing.
Sinn Féin’s cooperation would have been vital because it is now the largest party on the nationalist side. The largest party on the other side, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is unequivocally pro-life, had already agreed to participate in reconvening the assembly, and had been attempting to introduce the Defence of the Unborn Child Bill 2019. If passed by midnight on October 21, this bill would have stopped the Westminster edict in its tracks. All Sinn Féin had to do was cooperate in reconvening the assembly for a single day in order to scuttle the Westminster package.
So far, so predictable, though also laden with ironies. Predictable because Sinn Féin, which once defended the Catholic minority in “the North,” as we call it, is now a standard loony-leftie collective in favor of every kind of liberal insanity you could shake an ArmaLite at. Ironic for all kinds of reasons, but especially because “sinn féin” is an Irish phrase meaning “ourselves alone.”
Late last week I received a petition from multiple sources in the pro-life community concerning the imminent abortion threat. The petition, headed “Sinn Féin—Stop Europe’s most extreme abortion law being imposed on the North of Ireland,” was addressed to the SF leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, requesting that her party cooperate in reconvening the assembly.
The petition asserted that the British Parliament had voted to impose on Northern Ireland one of the most extreme abortion laws in the world without any consultation with the citizens of the province. It continued: “This new law will replace Northern Ireland’s current pro-life law with a radical abortion regime allowing for abortion for any reason, on-demand, and there will be no law protecting the unborn child right through to 28-weeks.”
The petition added that the proposed change in the laws would permit abortions for babies with cleft lip, club foot, and Down syndrome; the legalization of sex-selective abortion; legal abortions on girls under 15 without parental consent; the abortion of an unwanted twin, partial birth abortions, and what is euphemistically called “comfort care”—allowing babies who escape the abortionist’s toolkit to die on a slab.
It continued: “MPs at Westminster have voted to introduce the most extreme abortion law in Europe on the North of Ireland against the will of the people . . . Sinn Féin’s support for direct rule from London is a radical change in their policy and goes against everything they ever stood for.” The petition also claimed the new law would “violate the Good Friday Agreement [the peace settlement of 1998], by taking away from the people of the North of Ireland the right to decide our own laws on abortion without interference from elsewhere.”
The Good Friday Agreement provided for power sharing by unionists and nationalists in an executive answerable to the Stormont Assembly. Since 2007, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had been the largest unionist party and Sinn Féin the largest nationalist party, and thus had laid claim to, respectively, the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Both executive and assembly collapsed in January 2017 with the resignation of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness (since deceased) as Deputy First Minister. This episode was the last straw in a long history of disagreements between the DUP and Sinn Féin. At that point McGuinness, a former IRA commander, had held the position for ten years—since 2007, when he had formed a remarkably good relationship with Rev. Ian Paisley, who was First Minister in 2007–2008. Following the collapse of the executive, the assembly was suspended and all attempts to restore power sharing came to nothing. For 33 months, Northern Ireland had no functioning government, and was run by civil servants.
I did not sign the pro-life petition, which was self-evidently pointless. I recalled the evening of May 26, 2018, when Michelle O’Neill, the woman addressed by the petition, stood on a platform at Dublin Castle alongside her party leader Mary Lou McDonald as the results of the Republic’s referendum to abolish the right-to-life of the child in the womb were announced. The two women were holding aloft a sign with the words “The North is Next.” At that time, Sinn Féin said it would seek guarantees on “abortion access” in Northern Ireland before the Stormont institutions could be restored. McDonald pledged that women in the North would not be left “marooned” following the Republic’s abortion referendum, and demanded that the Irish government introduce legislation to allow such women the right to terminations south of the border.
Sinn Féin has long since been signed up for a radical leftist agenda. In the 1970s, with the men mostly behind bars, radical feminists succeeded in supplanting the traditional ideologies of the movement with an off-the-shelf version of cultural Marxism. The old Catholic-Nationalist ideas were quietly scrapped, and by the time the Good Friday Agreement brought a formal end to the conflict in 1998, the movement was a left-liberal chorus line.
The most startling irony of all is that the defense of the unborn child in Northern Ireland is today a matter solely for the DUP, the party founded by legendary Free Presbyterian firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, once regarded—justifiably—as an extreme, pope-hating, anti-Catholic bigot. At the time of his death in 2014, he had become beloved of many Catholic-Nationalists on account of his mellowing approach to reconciliation and the sheer breadth of his personality. Once upon a time, Paisley was feared in the Republic as a quasi-demonic force of nature whose tempers threatened the peace almost as much as did the IRA. He was the stuff of our nightmares, and not just the metaphorical, political kind. He was someone who had us crunching bolt upward in bed in the dead hours, quaking under the thunderous roar of his voice, recoiling from the fiery torches of his eyes and wiping his spittle from our quivering cheeks.
A few years later, we watched Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in the paroxysms of mirth brought on by their blossoming friendship. These men who used to loathe one another now belly-laughed at each other’s jokes. The Chuckle Brothers, as they became known, were the issue of reinvented public desires, two men who stood for a reconciliation that had once, to the papists Paisley had excoriated, seemed less likely than fish reaching Mars.
Nowadays, Paisley’s party is the closest we come on the island of Ireland to the teaching of the Catholic Church that once laid claim to 90-odd percent of the Republic’s people.
I sense that many Irish-American Catholics continue to take a naïve view of Sinn Féin, regarding them as essentially the same Catholic-Nationalist outfit the Provisionals had seemed in the beginning. Many appear to have particular difficulty in comprehending that the Provisionals/Sinn Féin never had more than an opportunistic connection with the Irish nationalist tradition, going back through 1916 to titans like Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone, and Thomas Davis. As the ’70s wore on, the movement succumbed to homicidal thuggery and sadism. The IRA became a ruthless, pathological killing machine, which showed no mercy either to its ideological enemies or those among its own communities suspected of being “touts” (informers), whose bodies were frequently found in alleyways with a bullet to the head and a symbolic ten-pound note slipped between stiffening digits.
Nowadays, aside from its pro-abortion and LGBT policies, Sinn Féin is arguably among the most anti-national groupings in Irish politics, being dogmatically in favor of opening up Irish borders and inviting all-comers to enter. Its representatives can regularly be heard issuing bullying homilies to small rural communities. Our unprincipled government is seeking to foist vastly disproportionate numbers of asylum seekers on these communities in what are called “direct provision centers,” which alter the ecology of local communities and place vulnerable people in harm’s way. More than one wag has proposed rewriting the longtime Provo slogan as “Brits out, Africans in!”
Professor Liam Kennedy of the Centre for Economic History at Queen’s University Belfast has analyzed the data contained in David McKittrick’s book Lost Lives. This book profiles those who died in the Troubles between 1966 and 1999, and calculates that republican paramilitaries were responsible for 59 percent of deaths, with the Provisional IRA accounting for 49 percent. This compares with the 10 percent of all killings in the same period carried out by security forces. Professor Kennedy said that the Provisional IRA was “the main killing agency during the Troubles.”
He also suggested that there was a basis for believing that there is such a thing as an “oppressive minority” and that the Provisional movement and the wider Northern Irish nationalist community might qualify as such. “These figures show that the Provisional IRA was responsible for driving the conflict onwards year and year before admitting defeating in 1994 for its ultimate objective of creating a 32 county republic.”
In light of all this, Sinn Féin’s recent actions become comprehensible. Why should a party like this have the slightest regard for the lives of innocent babies? It is not reasonable to expect ideological decency from people who, believing not the slightest in the independence they demanded, are prepared to middle-finger God by taking his powers into their own hands.
This is the reality of the normalized conditions of Irish politics post-conflict. Many decent people, inside and outside Ireland, just cannot get their heads around the idea that the importation of alien ideologies has utterly altered the underfoot conditions of Irish politics and public thinking, leaving nothing as it was before and a future of nothing but more of the same.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?