Melanie McDonagh

Shami Chakrabarti can’t have it both ways on Northern Ireland

Shami Chakrabarti can't have it both ways on Northern Ireland
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Never one to shy away from a platitude, the shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, has declared that the PM must reform abortion law in Northern Ireland on the basis that women there “have been let down by privileged women and men for too long” and that, so far as Theresa May is concerned, “the test of  feminists is whether they stick up for all women”. So far as this woman is concerned, I’ve been trying to work out the logic of these observations in terms of the abortion question and failing, so let’s just give up and cut to the chase.

Abortion is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland and was also quite explicitly excluded from the provisions of the 1967 Abortion Act because legislators recognised that it had a different sensibility – political and religious – on this from the rest of the UK. It was, at one time, something that both nationalists and Unionists recognised before Sinn Fein reinvented itself as a kind of Irish Republican version of Momentum, and even now, much of the party’s grassroots in the North remains traditional on this one.

That’s why Arlene Foster, DUP leader, could quite truthfully say that the Irish referendum result didn’t have any bearing on Northern Ireland. It is a matter for its assembly, not for Westminster, still less for the Republic, to decide. It’s why it was outrageous that Stella Creasy could effectively seek to undermine the abortion law in Northern Ireland by requiring the NHS to pay for women from there to have abortions in England. It’s why it is unacceptable that Westminster MPs – Justine Greening et al for the Tories and Shami & co for Labour – are circling May to get her to foist UK abortion law on Northern Ireland.

Leave aside May’s tricky parliamentary position for a moment. What part of devolution do they not understand? Devolved issues aren’t to be overridden by central government simply because MPs want to engage in competitive grandstanding on abortion – and what a repellent spectacle that is. If you want to return to direct rule from Westminster, say so, but what you can’t do is ride roughshod over devolution just when it suits you.

The problem, of course, about the Assembly deciding the issue is that this body isn’t working right now. And one reason it isn’t working is the stand off between Sinn Fein and the DUP over, of all things, the extent to which the Irish language should be promoted, a matter of zero concern to almost everyone. If Mary Lou McDonald, fresh from cheerleading the abortion lobby in the Republic now wants to raise the issue north of the border, well its up to her to break the stalemate, isn’t it?

We can, then, look forward to a woman-on-woman wrestling match on this one, a scenario in which Shami’s fatuous observations about feminism being about standing up for all women seems singularly unhelpful. Personally, I’ll be cheering on the woman in the orange corner – and once, I never thought I’d be saying that.