Abortion and customs deals collide over the Irish border

Rachel Cunliffe
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NI Women Attend Pro-Choice Rally Following Irish Referendum Decision
Northern Ireland is now at odds both with the Republic and the rest of the UK when it comes to abortion (Source: Getty)

It all started with wood pellets.

The Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) launched in Northern Ireland in 2012, providing subsidies for switching to low-carbon energy sources, such as biomass generators that burned wood chips.

Unfortunately, the subsidies were worth more than the fuel cost, and no cap was set. This led to a bizarre situation where people were incentivised to use energy they didn’t need, from a source that, while not as damaging as fossil fuels, is still far from environmentally friendly. One farmer was reportedly down to earn £1m for heating an empty shed.

Read more: PM backs down on Brexit backstop deadline to keep Davis onside

The scandal hit in January 2017, when it emerged that the scheme had massively overspent – at a cost to taxpayers now estimated at £700m. The blame centred squarely on the environment minister who had brought in the RHI: a certain Arlene Foster of the DUP.

If that name rings a bell, it’s because Foster, who became DUP leader and first minister for Northern Ireland in 2016, is probably the second most powerful woman in the UK – it is only thanks to her 10 MPs propping up the minority Tory government that Theresa May is still Prime Minister.

But when the RHI debacle came to light, she was almost ousted.

The late Martin McGuinness, from the opposition party Sinn Fein, used the RHI as a (perhaps cynical) excuse to resign as deputy first minister, triggering a snap election.

Sinn Fein stubbornly refused to return to a power-sharing arrangement with the DUP as long as Foster remained in charge. There has been no assembly at Stormont since.

Foster, who refused to resign for her mishandling of the RHI even with the prospect of her nation lacking a government, called the backlash against her “misogynistic” – an interesting defence, given her current role in the row over abortion.

Northern Ireland has some of the harshest restrictions in the developed world. Women cannot terminate a pregnancy even in cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormality, let alone for reasons of personal choice.

For decades, the discrepancy compared to women elsewhere in Britain has been ignored. But last month’s landmark referendum in the Republic of Ireland, which saw two thirds of voters reject similarly draconian restrictions, has thrown this injustice into sharp relief.

Northern Ireland is now at odds both with the Republic and the rest of the UK, and women’s rights campaigners have used the momentum of the landslide victory to push for a change north of the Irish border.

The past week has seen passionate, cross-party support in Westminster for change. Tory women are backing reform, most notably Heidi Allen, who spoke emotively on Tuesday about her own decision to terminate a pregnancy.

Cabinet ministers Karen Bradley and Penny Mordaunt have both made clear their personal support, with Mordaunt tweeting that if Stormont does not address the issue, Westminster will.

Reformists also have the law on their side – sort of. On Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed that Northern Ireland’s abortion restrictions are incompatible with human rights. While the court ruled against campaigners on a technicality, the clear legal position is that something needs to change.

The public has agreed for some time – an Amnesty International poll from 2016 found that 72 per cent of people in Northern Ireland support relaxing the law.

The DUP is having none of it. They claim that this is a devolved issue over which Stormont has authority – which it technically does. And with May reliant on DUP support, there is a limit to her leverage.

The Prime Minister herself is usually cautiously progressive on women’s rights. But then there’s Brexit.

As May desperately tries to push through some kind of EU compromise on the Irish border, Foster has been defiant, threatening to pull out of her agreement with the Tories over customs arrangements. She has been extremely clear: “for us, our only red line is that we are not treated any different from the rest of the United Kingdom”.

The women of Northern Ireland could say the same.

The situation as it stands is that the DUP wants Northern Ireland to be treated like the rest of the UK when it comes to Brexit, but differently when it comes to abortion. It has threatened to bring down the government over both.

But with so many MPs, including those in her own party, backing change, May will find the pressure increasingly hard to ignore.

Her strategy to date is to claim that it is the responsibility of the Northern Irish assembly. This would be true, if Northern Ireland had an assembly, which it doesn’t, thanks to Foster, Sinn Fein, and the RHI.

Where does that leave us? There’s no roadmap, but it’s difficult to see how the DUP can simultaneously refuse to budge on both abortion and EU customs without risking bringing down the government.

In which case we are left with three eventualities: Northern Ireland may essentially remain part of the EU customs union, throwing Britain’s Brexit strategy into doubt; or women there may be granted some degree of autonomy over abortion; or the UK government could fall and plunge the whole country into a snap election.

And all because Arlene Foster got her numbers wrong on wood pellets.

Read more: Ireland's prime minister promises new abortion laws by year-end

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