Women’s rights on the agenda in the North of Ireland

After the success of the abortion referendum in Ireland, the North needs to address the issue

The issue of women's rights and access to abortion are now being placed alongside calls for same-sex marriage as part of an equality agenda being opposed by unionists. 

Following the repeal of the constitutional block on abortion in the 26 Counties, Sinn Fein has joined with pro-abortion campaigns to demand change in the north of Ireland. This is in fact now the only place in Ireland or Britain to maintain a blanket ban on terminations. 

After receiving accolades from around the world for its part in the constitutional change, the Dublin government has said the 26 County referendum has "set the tone" for what should happen in the North. 

But the DUP has said it will not be "bullied or bounced" into a change in the North's abortion laws, making the return of the collapsed power-sharing institutions in Belfast less likely than before. 

Sinn Fein's Six County leader Michelle O'Neill said the North of Ireland was becoming a "backwater" on a number of issues, and that her party wanted the Stormont Assembly to legislate on abortion. 

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has said that women in the north should "not be left marooned" following the abortion referendum in the 26 Counties, and said new legislation would allow them access to services south of the border. 

Ms McDonald said it would be unthinkable if a woman in a border town such as Dundalk could have have an abortion but a woman "up the road" in Newry could not. She said she had been "particularly struck" by the involvement of people from the Six Counties in the 'Yes' campaign. 

An eclectic protest outside Laganside courts in Belfast has drawn attention to the new campaign. Feminist activists from the socialist feminist group Rosa (Reproductive rights, against oppression, sexism and austerity) were dressed as handmaids and watched as 'abortion pills' were delivered by robots controlled from the Netherlands, where abortion is legal, and then swallowed by women in an act of civil disobedience. The PSNI seized the devices and the pills. 

Sinn Fein said the abortion issue had also increased motivation for a Six County referendum on a united Ireland with constitutional issues gaining renewed prominence.