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Passivity, Home and Abroad: Theresa May, Northern Ireland, and the Abortion Debate

Friday, 25th May 2018: over 50 years since England, Wales and Scotland compromised on their abortion laws, the heavily religious and Catholic Ireland finally voted to partially legalize abortion. The historic Irish vote is part of what Ireland’s Prime Minister has labelled a “quiet revolution” of liberalism. With the rest of the regional powers now having legalized abortion, the question remains: where does Northern Ireland stand?

The question leaves strict legal traditionalists, pro-life Members of Parliament and social progressives entrenched in a massive debate centered around progressive morality and the rights of the devolved powers. On 7 June, the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled that, although the Court did not possess the right to liberalize abortion laws, Northern Ireland’s complete ban on abortion is an infringement on women’s human rights. The Court advised the Northern Irish to take immediate legislative action. A week earlier, on 29 May, UK Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May said she would remain passive on the issue—“We are of the view that this is a devolved matter”—despite giving her own personal support for reform at the G7 summit.

May and the Government are now forced to decide between strict adherence to legal tradition and multi-nationally declared morality. And the answer must be the latter. More importantly, May must use this issue—legalization of abortion in Northern Ireland—to start moving away from the international relations nightmare that is Brexit and begin to address a wider range of domestic issues. Despite her tremendous task of leading Britain through its exit from the European Union, May cannot continue to neglect domestic affairs, which have been, at times, woefully mismanaged during her two-year tenure.

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In 1967, Scotland, Wales and England declared that abortion would be legal during the first two trimesters of pregnancy. Yet, within the historically imperialistic and powerful United Kingdom, one country remained amiss: Northern Ireland. Despite the 1967 reforms that affected most of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland remained stubbornly opposed to such progressive legislative action.

Although the political imbalance between the four UK nations—England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—continues to remain apparent (with England vastly at the forefront), nuance underlines the current political layout. In 2017, May lost her parliamentary majority in a snap election that she herself triggered. Though not creating a coalition government, the Conservatives still hold a voting bloc with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, thereby enabling May to attain a majority vote without formally aligning her Government with the Northern Irish party. With pressure from rebellious Conservative Members of Parliament, the House of Lords, the leftist Labour party and Scottish shouts for both independence and access to the European Union, May depends on every vote she can collect, especially those from the Democratic Unionist Party.

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Aside from politicking, however, many defenders of strict adherence to devolved powers cite that, in 1997, the UK government widely expanded the number of powers given to the three devolved nations—including local government, health services, and many other legislative rights. For the Government, therefore, to overstep its legal boundaries would be to overstep Northern Irish democracy and renege on the expanded devolved powers of 1997.

Yet, the Northern Ireland Assembly has not convened in nearly two years, as an Executive power is yet to be formed since the 2017 election, when no single party managed to get 30 percent of the vote. Therefore, Northern Ireland has proven unable to establish a government or govern itself, and May should, with an interest for proper, effective democracy, push abortion legislation supported and upheld throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. Although she may not push the legislation herself without infringing upon the devolved powers, she is completely within her right to force a referendum, so that the Northern Irish people can at least exercise democracy.

However, pro-life Democratic Unionist Party Members of Parliament and strict legal traditionalists resent the idea of a referendum, despite polls showing that much of Northern Ireland favors partial legalization of abortion. Additionally, many Conservatives argue that May cannot afford to push a referendum or Parliamentary vote without losing 10 crucial votes from the Democratic Unionist Party. At the moment, the loss of 2 votes is the loss of her majority.

The Prime Minister must disregard these politicking worries. Theresa May has finally been given an opportunity to succeed during a tenure which has been polluted with failure, scandal and ineffectiveness. Even if Brexit manages to rise from its current state—ashes—and reach its fullest potential, May will receive no credit, whilst any of Brexit’s likely failings will read clearly on her record in bold.

What is most startling is sheer the number of issues, apart from Brexit, that her Government has neglected. The news cycle tirelessly revolves around Brexit and international relations, to the extent that the Government has only occasionally been forced to identify and assess major domestic issues. While May has stood (arguably undeservedly) as the Brexit punching bag, she has not identified the strong possibility that a strong and stable domestic situation could enhance public support and unity towards her international debacle.

Her sympathizers are fair and quick to highlight May’s impossible job—steering the British ship through the Brexit storm. It must be stressed, however, that May’s tenure as Prime Minister has been a litany of disasters, apart from Brexit: her Government has admitted to targeted deportation, been the face of myriad transportation scandals—including Northern Rail and the third Heathrow runwayallowed China and other foreign investors to privately construct nuclear plants, lost a House majority in a snap election she established, and been accused of deceiving ministers and Labour MPs on myriad occasions—a few poorly mismanaged issues among a seemingly infinite number of her Government’s failures. Yet, in a tenure which has been wholly unforgiving and void of opportunity for Britain’s second female Prime Minister, May finally faces a chance—actively supporting Northern Irish legalization of abortion—to prove herself as a leader fit to lead the country both internationally and domestically.

Instead of actively working to amend her popularity, May continues to balk at the opportunity to unify both the Government and much of the opposition under multi-partisan and publicly supported abortion liberalization. Setting aside May’s current credibility and reputation, the crux of this debate is the infringement of democratic principles, made void by the Northern Irish Assembly. Calling for a referendum within Northern Ireland regarding abortion legislation is not only a win for democracy and women’s human rights; it is also an easy political win for Theresa May during a tenure where she has had to claw and scrape her way toward any positive press.

Yet, May continues to hesitate regarding Northern Ireland—despite the perfect timing that has miraculously and probably undeservedly fallen at the steps of 10 Downing Street. May expressed the same hesitations in March, when she refused to intervene regarding liberalization of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. May is painting a portrait of herself as passive on both domestic and international platforms, hardly the depiction allowed from a leader who ran on the platform for a ‘strong and stable’ Britain.

Various ministers and Conservative MPs have urged May to speak out in favor of a vote in the House of Commons regarding the Northern Ireland question. However, May seems preoccupied with promises of a better Britain post-Brexit. As a result, she continues to overlook both the infringement of democracy in Northern Ireland and the considerable non-Brexit issues that plague the United Kingdom. If history will call her anything other than passive and ineffective, she must look beyond Brexit and address domestic troubles, beginning with the abortion issue.