À LA CARTE
UK Northern Ireland’s largest party, the DUP, has spent a lot of time during the ﬁrst stage of the Brexit negotiations asserting the indivisibility of the six counties from the rest of the UK. Fair enough, as that is what its electorate want. Any ideas about the future border (hard, soft or lumpy) somehow being in the Irish Sea are decried as impossible by Arlene Foster and her ten MPs. Once again, only good and proper representation of the people who elected them. Even better for the DUP, who are heeded at Westminster as much as the absentee Sinn Fein MPs when there’s a majority government in power, Theresa May’s government depends on those ten MPs to stay in the driving seat in these most crucial of times. Few pundits give the Tories much chance of improving their numbers if they go before some version of Brexit actually happens.
So, brilliant for the DUP and their preservation of the Union. If only Northern Ireland and its largest party was as representative when it comes to other aspects of the United Kingdom and its laws and customs.
In early December, the Belfast branch of the Marie Stopes Clinic – which provides help and advice for women, including but not limited to, abortion information – closed its doors. Marie Stopes UK said that three quarters of Northern Irish women who sought help from them did so directly with their English offices already. The recent decision of the UK government to directly fund Marie Stopes’ services for Northern Irish women in England meant that it was better to use its resources where those women went to use them, i.e. in England. Anti-abortion groups, many of whom protested outside the clinic’s offices since it opened in 2012, described the closure as a victory for their beliefs.
Abortion is of course illegal in Northern Ireland, despite its being a constituent country of a state where it has been legal since as early as 1967. As part of its devolved (but not functioning at present) government, Northern Ireland can operate abortion law from the mid-19th Century. As you can imagine, these restrictions are even tougher than those operating under Section 8 in Ireland, but now at least, Northern Irish women can avail of the same free abortion services as women in the rest of the UK. However, just like so many thousands of women from the Republic, they must go to England to access them.
Similarly, as a legal judgement in the summer showed, the UK’s marriage equality rules aren’t part of Northern Ireland’s current vision of being part of the Union. Same-sex marriages from outside Northern Ireland, including ones from say England or the Republic, are recognised as civil partnerships and the assertion by two couples in the Belfast High Court that this was a human rights violation, was not allowed. Once again, the different rules in the North are allowed by the powers given to the devolved Assembly in this area (as applied by its largest party, the DUP). Attempts by Sinn Fein and others to introduce same-sex marriage legislation in 2015 were stymied by the DUP with a so-called “petition of concern”, which allows the largest party to prevent legislation coming into effect. Despite the non-result, this was the ﬁrst time a majority of MLAs voted in favour of same-sex marriage.
Now of course, any such moves are on hold, as the Assembly hasn’t actually assembled since its most recent elections in March. Should they eventually start work again, the DUP currently has too few seats to allow it to table petitions of concern to block legislation. It would need to rely on other like-minded MLAs for this to happen. So, while the DUP exercises its novel Brexit inﬂuence at Westminster, its position as leading proponent of the North’s à la carte vision of abortion and marriage equality legislation could become a trickier proposition.
If only the DUP was as representative when it comes to other aspects of the United Kingdom and its laws and customs.
Until last month, the only strictly legal and safe way to get PrEP drugs in Ireland was a prescription for the name brand version Truvada, which costs €400 per month. This put a regular supply out of the reach of many people who were at risk of contracting HIV. Now, pharmacies can dispense a generic version to people with prescriptions for the more reasonable price of €90 a month. This is obviously good news if it allows more people to avoid HIV infection, but it comes with caveats: it’s not a cure, is not designed for people who are already HIV-positive, and won’t prevent you from getting other STIs, some of which, such as syphilis, are returning to the world at rates not seen since the invention of antibiotics.
From an Irish perspective too – why isn’t it free to at-risk groups? Still, it’s a great step in the right direction.