Hearing veteran activist Bernadette McAliskey speak to a crowd is guaranteed to be a stirring experience, so attendees of the Abortion Rights Campaign’s sixth annual March for Choice in Dublin on 30th September knew they were going to witness a barnstorming first speech. McAliskey exceeded all expectations. After asserting that pregnant individuals must be the “first and last authority” of their own bodies, McAliskey closed her speech by calling out Sinn Féin in a manner that only a Northern Republican doyenne could:
“I have a message, and I am entitled, nobody is better entitled than me to give a message to Sinn Féin…I have a message for you, Mary Lou [McDonald]. You had better be absolutely and unequivocally behind the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment or your backside will never sit on the Taoiseach’s bench.”
Some Sinn Féin supporters responded to McAliskey’s remarks by angrily replying to coverage of the speech on Twitter, alleging anti-Sinn Féin bias and voicing their assumption that McAliskey must be somehow unaware that Sinn Féin supports the repeal of the Eighth Amendment and access to abortion in circumstances of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. It is safe to say that McAliskey is perfectly aware of the detail of Sinn Féin’s abortion policy (which would cover approximately 6% of the abortions that the island of Ireland currently exports to other jurisdictions). Like the Citizens’ Assembly on the Eighth Amendment and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, McAliskey finds an exceptions-only model of abortion access unacceptable, hence her decision to read the party to filth on a public stage. The concept that a Republican feminist might prioritise the principle of reproductive justice over blind loyalty to a party line is apparently unfathomable to many defenders of the Sinn Féin position, who often rely on dismissing feminist critique as simply anti-Republicanism under a guise. Inconvenient truth-teller Bernadette McAliskey has exposed the flimsiness of this argument.
The content of Sinn Fein’s present abortion policy dates back to March 2015, when Ard Fheis delegates passed motions in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment and allowing access to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. This expanded the party position beyond legislating for access only in cases of rape, incest and to preserve the life of the pregnant person. No motions on abortion were debated at the 2016 Ard Fheis, although the party slightly repackaged its policy by adopting the slogan “Repeal and Enact”. As Wendy Lyon has highlighted, Sinn Féin’s overarching conservative approach to legislating for abortion has persisted for more than a decade: Sinn Féin proposes that abortion should remain illegal outside of qualifying exceptional circumstances.
When I first wrote about Sinn Féin’s abortion policy problem in April 2016, I noted the party’s tactic of blurring the lines between being in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment and advocating for genuinely transformative post-repeal legislation which would grant the right to choose. I also drew attention to the factors allowing Sinn Féin to get away with this fudge: (i) tacit partitionism and (ii) reliance on the assumption that the party can call itself progressive on this issue ahead of the 2018 referendum, merely because it opposes retention of the Eighth Amendment and subsequent exceptions-only legislation. This intellectually dishonest approach appears to be acceptable to most of the vocal party faithful (some of whom like to camp out in the Twitter mentions of pro-choice critics) but fellow repeal travellers outside the party have been consistently critical of Sinn Fein’s progressive posturing on an anti-choice policy.
Sinn Féin was compelled to acknowledge the limitations of its current abortion policy when attendees of the Abortion Rights Campaign March for Choice began to query the party’s absence, aside from a few individual councillors, from the 40,000-strong march last month. Sinn Féin Councillor for Rathfarnham Sarah Holland subsequently published a blogpost calling on the party to seriously reconsider its limited policy on abortion, expressing her disappointment with the party’s failure to attend to “campaign under a banner of repealing the eighth”. A party spokesperson defended the decision not to participate in the March for Choice on the basis that Abortion Rights Campaign’s view that following repeal of the Eighth Amendment, abortion should be made free, safe, and legal for all who want or need it “goes beyond the party position”. Deputy leader of the party Mary Lou McDonald weighed in after the party spokesperson’s statement went down like a lead balloon: “I think the absolute imperative and priority is to repeal the 8th Amendment from the constitution. My politics and my view is decidedly pro-choice, I will vote for and I will campaign for the repeal the 8th Amendment. That is the position of Sinn Féin.”
Note the distinction between McDonald’s personal pro-choice politics and the anti-choice position of her party – clear as mud.
The recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly which were released in April also go beyond Sinn Féin’s position, but the party has wisely avoided drawing attention to the compassion gap between party policy and the 99 ordinary citizens. The pro-choice recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly regarding legislation to provide abortion access on a par with most European states surprised observers across the political spectrum. The government had presumably hoped that the citizens would produce an exceptions-only mandate for reform and in doing so, moderate the growing influence of campaigners advocating for nothing less than a repeal of the Eighth and free, safe and legal abortion in the State. Sinn Féin also had to tread carefully while distancing itself from the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations: Louise O’Reilly TD responded to the recommendations by repeating the party’s support for repeal and exceptions-only abortion reform. This prompted outraged social media posts by Sinn Féin supporters who had understood the party’s endorsement of repeal as a sign of support for an extensive reform of Irish abortion law. Given that Sinn Féin has been deliberately imprecise in its abortion rhetoric for quite some time, such misinterpretations are inevitable. O’Reilly has since performed well in her role as a Sinn Féin representative on the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment, albeit carefully revealing little about her own views.
In the North, Sinn Féin has faced comparatively little pressure from fellow political parties, the press or its supporters to adopt a pro-choice position. In the absence of an Executive and flanked by the Precious Life-endorsed DUP and SDLP, Sinn Féin can get away with treating abortion reform as an afterthought while asserting a passionate commitment to ‘equality’. Former Health Minister and party leader in the North Michelle O’Neill opposed recent calls for the publication of a report examining abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality written in 2016, stating that the report should only be published “in the event of the Executive being restored”. The conclusions of the working group report are not at all difficult to predict, given that the Department of Justice conducted a consultation on fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) in 2014 and recommended that abortion should be lawful in Northern Ireland in pregnancies affected by FFA. The SDLP and DUP determined that the DOJ’s consultation was not authoritative enough to prompt them to change the law and clubbed together to initiate the blatant can-kicking exercise that has been the FFA working group process. Sinn Féin contributes to the shameful delay in addressing the law regarding terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality by allowing this report to sit unpublished on a civil servant’s desk, with no chance of abortion reform or the formation of an Executive in sight. In light of the September publication (without ministerial approval) of a long-awaited report by the Department of Education examining LGBT pupils’ experiences at school, it is unclear why the public should be denied the opportunity to read the FFA working group report. Surely Sinn Féin’s policy in favour of access to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality should prompt the party to support its immediate publication?
“As an aside, it seems that support for marriage equality is the only necessary qualification for parties to deem themselves progressive in Northern Ireland. Recognition of the human rights and bodily autonomy of pregnant people is an apparently optional add-on.”
Any mildly astute observer can see that Sinn Féin is trying to avoid committing to ‘a side’ on abortion, fearful of either losing support amongst socially conservative Catholic voters or alienating pro-choice supporters who may defect to a party with an already firm commitment to bringing reproductive rights to the Oireachtas. The party leadership – excluding perhaps Mary Lou McDonald – appears to believe that it has found a compromise position which is acceptable to the fabled Middle Ireland. In doing so, Sinn Féin underestimates the electorate. The recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly demonstrated the general public’s potential to deliver a compassionate response to the question of abortion reform, when presented with the sociological, medical and legal evidence necessary to make an informed decision. I was wrong in my prediction last year that the reckoning on Sinn Féin’s pro-repeal but anti-choice policy would only occur after the referendum on the Eighth – it has already begun. Sinn Féin would be wise to update its abortion policy at next month’s Ard Fheis to endorse the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly at a minimum. Otherwise McAliskey’s warning to Mary Lou may prove prescient.