FOSTER CHILDREN

Certain phrases that shouldn’t be taken literally nonetheless have a habit of painting vividly silly and very literate pictures in my strange head. Mention a customs border in the middle of the Irish Sea and I immediately see a sad, lonely little Jobsworth with a clipboard standing on a floating Checkpoint Charlie midway between Liverpool and Belfast; I then see goods being dragged onto said edifice by teams of burly individuals as though it were a swimming pool-based prop on some insane Brexit-themed edition of ‘It’s A Knockout’. Actually, more ‘Jeux Sans Frontières’, thinking about it. But I digress before I begin. Naturally, DUP opposition to Boris’s deal brought me here.

It goes without saying that the Democratic Unionist Party has been punching way above its weight for the past couple of years. The dominant force in Ulster Unionism, which was elevated to a position of unprecedented prominence at Westminster in order for Theresa May to shamelessly make up the Tory numbers in 2017, played a key, calamitous role in events leading up to the suspension of regular Stormont business almost three years ago; but Mrs May’s magic money tree rescued Arlene Foster and her henchmen from the fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive affair and gave them disproportionate clout at the Commons whilst the party’s rightful home of the Northern Ireland Assembly remained mothballed.

The DUP’s main objection to the current PM’s solution to the backstop problem seems to be based upon the drawing of a distinct line between the mainland and Northern Ireland where Brexit is concerned. The DUP doesn’t want the special concessions that keep Ulster’s ties to the EU far tighter than the rest of the UK’s will be; DUP thinking is that the nation’s future relationship with the EU should be the same across the whole of the United Kingdom, as though the overemphasis on ‘Britishness’ that is a traditional hallmark of Unionism implies there has never been any divergence between Northern Ireland and the other three constituent countries of the UK – and any sign of one now is somehow selling-out to Nationalists or, even worse, the dreaded Dublin.

Which is, of course, bollocks. Ulster Unionism has always been quick to raise the Union Jack, but it’s a pick ‘n’ mix patriotism in which Northern Ireland gets to choose which bits of Britain it fancies and disregards all the bits it doesn’t. The liberal removal of many illiberal, archaic British laws that began during Roy Jenkins’s social reforming tenure as Home Secretary in the 1960s never crossed the Irish Sea at all; even when the old Northern Ireland Parliament was abolished in 1972 and the province was governed from London for the next quarter-of-a century, there was little social reforming in Ulster. Mind you, it could be said there were perhaps more pressing issues there at the time.

Social (and what is no doubt regarded as moral) conservatism has typified Protestant Northern Ireland and its political face for decades; at one time, such an approach was also regarded as being characteristic of Catholic Northern Ireland – just as it was of Catholic Eire. Listening to a radio adaptation of Edna O’Brien’s ‘Country Girls Trilogy’ the other day reminded me of how young women in particular – especially those from rural Ireland – were utterly infantilised by the considerable, corrosive power once wielded throughout the Catholic community by the Church of Rome. However, the irreparable damage done by the child abuse scandals, which have undoubtedly contributed towards the church’s waning influence, could well have played a part in creating the kind of climate conducive to the radical reforms that have taken place in the Republic recently.

In the public perception, these social liberalisations have tended to make the Republic resemble a vivacious party animal who happens to live next door to a curmudgeonly middle-aged man forever complaining about the noise. They have made Northern Ireland look as much of an anachronism to Dublin as it is to London, yet with Stormont in a state of suspended animation ever since the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister in January 2017, members of the Assembly (who continue to draw their salaries, by the way) haven’t exactly been in a position to address such issues.

Ironically, their absence from Stormont and the return of effective direct rule from Westminster has enabled certain policies to be imposed on Ulster that, had the DUP been more active on home soil, would probably have struggled to get a foot in the door. And the one Great British social reform of 1967 that even the Republic has now adopted was the one whose glaring omission from the Northern Ireland statute book made a mockery of Unionist objections to any Brexit deal making a clear distinction between Ulster and the mainland. Indeed, that very omission showed there have always been very clear distinctions. However, as of midnight last night, abortion is no longer a criminal offence in Northern Ireland.

As Suzanne Breen from the Belfast Telegraph pointed out on ‘Newsnight’ yesterday, the hypothetical (albeit plausible) scenario in which a rape victim risked receiving a longer prison sentence than her rapist should she terminate an unwanted pregnancy provoked by the rape has now been belatedly consigned to history, along with the Victorian legislation that has kept Northern Ireland out of step with the mainland for 52 years. The fact that the DUP were strong enough in their opposition to go so far as to recall the power-sharing Executive said a great deal about the party’s priorities; the less headline-grabbing, albeit important, issues affecting the Northern Ireland electorate were not deemed significant enough to warrant reconvening at Stormont, yet offer women the same ownership of their bodies as they have in England, Scotland and Wales, never mind the Republic, and the DUP are there.

Mercifully, they left it too late. Their failure to stem the march of progress also merely highlighted how detached they are from wider public opinion beyond the hardcore Unionist enclaves; temporarily resuming business at Stormont to debate a single issue ended in farce with petulant walkouts that emptied the chamber. The fact that Ulster will also be brought into line with the rest of the UK (and the rest of Ireland) on the legal standing of same-sex marriage must have been an additional kick in the teeth for the DUP. For some reason, I can’t help but remember Mo Mowlam’s recollection of Ian Paisley’s fire-and-brimstone reaction to the news that Elton John had been invited to play at the ceremony marking the founding of the Northern Ireland Assembly – ‘Sodomites at Stormont!’ All that remains for the DUP now is to lick their wounds and return to Westminster, where – unlike at Stormont – the party’s appetite for destruction at least has numerous sympathetic allies.

© The Editor

BACKSTREET STORIES

vera-drakeTo be frank, I don’t really want to write about screeching millennial cry babies with pink hair stamping their feet and unable to comprehend you can’t always get what you want; and I don’t want to write about bloody Trump or bloody Brexit again. So, where does that leave me? Well, loath as I am to devote this blog to endless anniversaries – the last post, in case you missed it, marked fifty years since the arrival of Milton Keynes on the Buckinghamshire landscape – I couldn’t help but notice the same year in which the biggest New Town of them all appeared, a piece of legislation was introduced that eventually changed the lives of women in this country in a way that few pieces of legislation ever have.

The 1967 Abortion Act brought to an end (on the British mainland at least) the grim scenarios that were frequently fictionalised in British cinema during the years leading up to the Act. The sole moment in archetypal mid-60s Brit-flick ‘Alfie’ that Michael Caine’s title character loses his arrogant cocksure swagger is when, having impregnated the wife of a friend, he gazes at the aborted foetus ‘delivered’ by a loathsome backstreet abortionist and bursts into tears. By eavesdropping upon Alfie confronted by the consequences of his reckless actions, we see the male realisation of abortion’s ugly realities, just as the female perspective was graphically portrayed in the BBC TV play, ‘Up the Junction’, a year earlier.

As with the imprisonment of male homosexuals and the death penalty, the laws surrounding abortion immediately prior to the 1967 Act were in dire and urgent need of reform. Ineffective DIY remedies involving hot baths, knitting needles and a bottle of gin had been familiar means of attempting to induce miscarriages for years, along with more extreme practices such as engineering a fall down a flight of stairs. If all else failed, the ‘Vera Drake’ amateur abortionist was a familiar figure amongst women in the know throughout working-class neighbourhoods, whereas those with enough money could procure an illegal operation on Harley Street.

Although the contraceptive pill had been introduced in the early 60s, fears of encouraging unmarried promiscuity meant that it was only available to women with a ring on the third finger of their left hand; but even abstinence from pre-marital sex or avoiding embarking upon an affair couldn’t prevent the occasional unwanted pregnancy within a monogamous marriage, especially if social and financial circumstances meant the prospect of another mouth to feed filled the mother-to-be with horror.

The backstreet abortionist – often a qualified doctor who had either been struck off the medical register or one who greedily supplemented his income with an operation he knew could land him in prison – was an odious urban shadow haunting the netherworld of British society as much as the blackmailer of homosexuals in the first half of the twentieth century. At best, he could leave the women who went to him because they had nowhere else to go with permanent physical damage; at worst, he could kill them.

The grisly truth of the dearth of choice women had in this period was brought home to listeners on ‘Woman’s Hour’ yesterday, when an archive interview from the mid-60s was broadcast; in it, a working-class woman from Tyneside spoke candidly of her own experience of a backstreet abortion. That her account was told bereft of the tearful emotion that would probably accompany such a confession today somehow made that account all the more chilling, as did the juxtaposition of its grimness with the jolly chimes of an ice-cream van that could be detected in the distance as she recalled what had happened to her. It was far-from being an easy listen, but as an eye-opener of what women had to endure prior to 1967, it was a remarkable piece of radio.

Future Liberal leader David Steel, then a little-known backbencher, was the MP who introduced the Private Member’s Bill to legalise the termination of pregnancy, though he was supported by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government; it appointed Sir John Peel (President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the man who had delivered both Prince Andrew and Prince Edward) to chair a committee that recommended the Bill become law. After a debate in Parliament in which passionate opinions on both sides of the argument were aired, a free vote saw the proposal passed and it gained Royal Assent on 27 October 1967, becoming law as of 27 April 1968.

With the exception of Northern Ireland, the new law legalised abortion throughout Great Britain with a gestation cut-off point of 24 weeks. After the Act was passed, deaths as a result of abortions plummeted and the hideous spectre of the backstreet abortionist faded into history. The moral objections that accompanied the passage of the legislation through Parliament resurfaced as fanatical pressure groups, often of a religious bent; but fewer unwanted children were being born as a result, and fewer women were prematurely dying.

Yes, there is an irony that the anniversary of this British legislation’s introduction should coincide with the new tenant of the White House reviving Ronald Reagan’s old policy of cutting US funding for non-governmental organisations that offer advice on (or include) abortions in their overseas portfolios. As with promoting contraception in the developing world, such a service is one of the few ways in which the planet’s swelling population can be reduced; Christopher Hitchens made that point when justifying his campaign against Mother Theresa. But, while pro and anti camps will probably never be reconciled on this issue, the rights British women acquired half-a-century ago at least gave them something far more emancipating than tax-free tampons – actual control of their own bodies.

© The Editor