Aoife Moore: The tale of two Sinn Féins

The party has been accused of hypocrisy on abortion laws in the North
Aoife Moore: The tale of two Sinn Féins

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill during a visit to the Ulster Hospital vaccination centre. Picture: PA

On Monday night, Sinn Féin MLAs in the north spoke passionately against a DUP bill that seeks to amend the law in Northern Ireland to prevent abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities, including Down Syndrome, and then not-so-passionately abstained on the vote.

The bill passed its second stage by 48 votes to 12.

Michelle O'Neill, speaking as a Sinn Féin MLA, said she wanted to "give a voice to those women who find themselves in incredibly difficult and very vulnerable circumstances".

"This is the thin end of the wedge and attempting to reopen a debate that has already been had...Women are entitled to have compassionate healthcare"...before announcing her party would abstain.

Both sides of their mouth

The abstention by Sinn Féin has enraged and disappointed pro-choice campaigners, however, many say they're not surprised by the party's politicking around the issue, because abortion has been consistently a topic where the party is often seen as talking out of both sides of its mouth.

Like many parties, north and south, Sinn Féin has been on a journey when it comes to abortion.

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Firstly, set against it and then shifting to a more liberal stance, before expelling two of their own TDs for their own anti-choice beliefs and ultimately backing the Repeal campaign in the south, with a well-timed photo-op for the newly installed female leaders holding a sign stating: "The north is next".

One assumes, "the north is next, sort of, and depending on X, Y and Z" wouldn't have fit on the piece of cardboard.

A Sinn Féin spokesperson said: "The British Government in response to the DUP's proposed bill have also said publicly that they will ensure that abortion legislation remains in line with CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) and therefore the DUP are aware that it will have no material effect.

“For that reason, Sinn Féin abstained on the vote on the DUP Bill."

All of which begs the question - if it's already a non-starter, why not vote against it?

"Playing that game"

Mary Lou McDonald said that Sinn Féin was "not playing that game" with the DUP, but Sinn Féin’s party policy has not been updated since 2018, despite the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee, which recommends: "Parties are obligated to ensure that women’s decisions to terminate pregnancies on this ground do not perpetuate stereotypes towards persons with disabilities."

Likewise, the Abortion Rights Campaign has pointed out there is clear evidence in the Republic of Ireland that restricting abortion access to fatal diagnosis means families are still forced to travel to England to access abortion: "Restrictive definitions create high legal thresholds for abortion access which act as a barrier to healthcare, meaning travel to England remains the most common route to access abortion for SFA in the whole island."

Many have pointed out that in June last year, the party tabled an amendment almost exactly like the one they abstained on.

The 2020 Sinn Féin amendment read that it: "Rejects the specific legislative provision in the abortion legislation which goes beyond fatal foetal abnormalities to include non-fatal disabilities, including Down Syndrome."

DUP MLA Paul Givan said Sinn Féin's amendment “is a recognition of the flawed legislation that Westminster is imposing on the people of Northern Ireland”. 

Stormont unity at last!

Shock in Dublin

The amendment in Belfast came as a shock to Sinn Féin TDs in Dublin, who confirmed this to the Irish Examiner at the time.

"Maybe they thought this would give pro-lifers in the north some comfort and now they've reopened this argument with a motion that won't actually change anything," one senior party source said last year.

The main charge against Sinn Féin in the north is exactly that — "to give pro-lifers in the north some comfort".

Sinn Féin has struggled with its image for some time, due to its quickly increased popularity in the Republic. The party of Eoin Ó Broin, Louise O'Reilly and Pearse Doherty, housing rights, workers' rights and "ordinary" people's rights in the Republic are also the party of Catholic republicanism in the north, and the marriage of the two has been messy at times, downright confused at others.

Voters split by a border

Much was made, rightly, of the presence of the potential next Taoiseach at a Republican funeral in west Belfast which flouted Covid rules last year.

Many southerners were left scratching their heads at why such a reputational risk was taken when the party is flying high in opposition and likewise now, with the party increasingly popular with young, left-leaning women and men, north and south, would they abstain on what is considered the highest priority women's rights issue in the north?

The answer is that Sinn Féin believes their voters are different on either side of the border.

Northerners are not seen as being as socially liberal as their Republican siblings and there is a myriad of factors why. The main one being that if your cultural identity is tied to your religion, you'll hang on to that religion a lot tighter than others would.

Northern nationalism is based on Catholicism and though many have moved away from the church, not enough it seems for Sinn Féin or the SDLP, the traditional nationalist parties, to alter their voting patterns. The SDLP had nine MLAs vote in favour of the DUP bill.

Running the risk

For Sinn Féin, the Bobby Storey funeral and the vote on abortion ran the same gauntlet, they knew the risk and did it anyway, because it's the votes that count.

Going forward the party will not be able to walk this tightrope so clumsily. If Mary Lou McDonald is to get her feet under the desk in Merrion Street, the pressure the party feels now from a critical media will feel like an all-expenses-paid holiday in Sri Lanka.

With these kinds of conflicting messages in Dublin and Belfast, voters won't buy the message that "the all-island party" is anything of the sort.

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