The post-election ‘confidence and supply’ deal between a minority Conservative government and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has provoked much alarm in the media. As well as the potential repercussions for Northern Ireland’s peace process, concerns have been raised about the influence the Northern Irish party might wield over government policy in return for the support of its ten MPs in Westminster, not least in the realm of equality and human rights.
Given the DUP’s socially conservative positioning, liberal commentators have warned of a potential regression of women’s and LGBTI rights. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson even secured assurances from the Prime Minister that there would be no rowing back on LGBTI rights in the rest of the UK.
This frenzy of interest in the DUP speaks to a lack of attention to Northern Ireland within the British media and its marginalisation from UK politics and public consciousness on this side of the water. These stories are nothing new to the people of Northern Ireland; ‘welcome to our world’ could sum up the response of many.
But how concerning is this new political reality for gender rights in the UK?
To be sure the unionist party’s policies on issues relating to gender equality place them on the extreme end of the spectrum in UK terms. Founded in 1971 by the late Reverend Ian Paisley, protection of Northern Ireland’s place in the union and promotion of religious values were and are central to the DUP’s ideology.
While the party – now the largest in Northern Ireland – has moderated in recent years, it remains home to hardline socially conservative positions. It opposes abortion and marriage equality and has previously attempted to ban adoptions by same sex couples, retain a lifetime ban on blood donation from gay men and supported a conscience clause to allow goods and services to be refused on the basis of strongly held religious beliefs. A study by Jonathon Tonge and colleagues gives an insight into the views of DUP members, two-thirds of whom believe homosexuality to be wrong while 73% oppose the legalisation of abortion.
So, what influence is the DUP likely to hold over UK government policy on gender rights?
A number of commentators have been more sanguine about the party’s ability to shape policy at the centre of UK politics, speculating that its focus will lie firmly on economic prizes. As predicted, the deal that emerged this week included a financial package of £1.5bn for Northern Ireland over the next two years, the bulk of which will be spent on infrastructure and broadband projects, plus commitments to drop plans to end the triple lock on pensions and means-test winter fuel payments.
In any case, many matters relating to equality and human rights, such as abortion and marriage equality, are devolved, meaning the party’s policies in these areas can only affect Northern Ireland.
On the face of it then, the pact looks unlikely to have a dramatic and visible effect on gender equality policy at UK level in the short term, though the influence that might be exerted informally and below the radar cannot be known.
But what about the outlook for gender rights in Northern Ireland?
The equality landscape in Northern Ireland looks very distinct in the UK context. It stands as the only part of the UK and Ireland where same sex marriage remains illegal. Access to abortion is highly restricted. The 1967 Abortion Act has never applied in Northern Ireland and the region’s abortion laws remain based on the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. As such, abortion is virtually illegal, even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities under. Indeed, Belfast’s Court of Appeal this week ruled that the law was a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly, overturning a previous High Court judgement the same law breached the European Convention on Human Rights.
Following decades of campaigning by activists in Northern Ireland, a victory was heralded this week when the Chancellor announced that Northern Irish women will be given free access to abortions on the NHS in England and Wales, in response to an amendment to the Queen’s speech by Labour MP Stella Creasy - a potential sign of the spotlight effect of the deal on the inequality in the rights enjoyed by the people of Northern Ireland. However, with abortion remaining outlawed in the region, women will still have to travel for terminations and incur the costs involved, both financial and emotional.
This gender unequal landscape owes much to the particular agenda of the DUP, as well as other parties - most notably the UUP and SDLP. But the design of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions also plays a role.
The devolved Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, first put in place by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, brought nationalist and unionist parties together in government and provided each community with rights guarantees.
The rules and procedures that ensure those community rights, however, can work to sideline broader human rights and equality that apply to society as a whole.
A clear example of this effect is the status of same sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Legislation to legalise gay marriage has been effectively blocked on five occasions in the Northern Ireland Assembly in recent years, through a veto designed to protect the interests of nationalists and unionists, triggered most recently by the DUP in November 2015.
Since the Good Friday Agreement equality has been a contested concept in Northern Irish politics. The agenda is often presented as a zero sum game, with nationalist parties claiming ownership and unionist parties painting it as a loss to ‘their’ community. The use of the community veto over broader equality issues can work to reinforce this dynamic and enmesh such issues in orange vs green politics, as others have argued. These veto rules can play a part in obstructing broad cross-societal support for progressive policies, from gender quotas to marriage equality.
The use of the veto for non-community related issues, has been the subject of much controversy, but attempts at its reform have so far failed.
More generally, advocates for gender rights and other cross-cutting matters argue that the focus in the power-sharing institutions on community rights subordinates other issues on the political agenda and marginalises groups that do not align with nationalism or unionism.
The institutions at Stormont have been suspended since January following an impasse between the two largest parties in government, the DUP and Sinn Féin. Talks aimed at their restoration are ongoing, with the latest deadline this week extended to 3 July in the absence of an agreement. Indeed, marriage equality was amongst the issues that precipitated the break-down of the institutions, with Sinn Féin citing the DUP’s blocking of the policy as one reason for its withdrawal from the power-sharing coalition, and it now stands as one of the sticking points between the parties. With the nationalist party claiming the Conservative pact has ‘emboldened’ the DUP’s ‘anti-rights agenda’, the prospects of a smooth return do not look promising at present.
With discussions between the Conservatives and the DUP concluded, across the water, another set of talks is taking place. In these negotiations the British and Irish governments - and all parties - need to put their minds to resolving this problem of marginalisation of human rights and equality amidst the necessary protection of community rights. Balancing those rights is a complex task, but it is one that urgently requires attention in Northern Ireland - and that is no side issue to the crisis. With electoral reconfigurations pivoting the region to the centre of UK political consciousness, gender inequality in Northern Ireland can no longer be bracketed off and quietly ignored in the rest of these islands.
Dr Cera Murtagh is Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast on the ESRC project Exclusion amid Inclusion: Power-Sharing and Non-Dominant Minorities:
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