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Double-dealing?: ‘Pro-life’ politicians vote to ban prayer and outreach at abortion centres in NI

Self-declared ‘pro-life’ politicians have voted to ban peaceful protest, prayer and outreach outside of abortion centres and hospitals in Northern Ireland. Thursday night’s passing of the “safe access zones” Bill is an unprecedented step, and makes the province the first part of the UK, and one of the only places worldwide, to ban public prayer and assembly. Here’s a run-down of the self-declared ‘pro-life’ MLAs who have previously expressed opposition to abortion and courted the pro-life vote — yet voted for the Bill that makes offering support a criminal offence.

At every stage of the Bill’s progression through Stormont, the only MLAs to vote against the legislation forbidding people from reaching out to women at abortion centres were from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice). All MLAs from the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the unionist Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), both of whom adopt a ‘conscience’ position on abortion, voted for the Bill as did Sinn Féin. The new political party Aontú have no representatives yet at Stormont but are strongly pro-life. 

THE SDLP — A ‘PRO-LIFE’ PARTY?

Notably, no nationalist or Catholic MLAs voted against the restrictive legislation banning peaceful prayer vigils that take place across the North regularly since abortion was forced through in the North by the Westminster government in 2019. This is despite the fact that, as recently as 2019, members of the SDLP said the party were driven by protecting human life since its foundation. 

Speaking in 2019, West Tyrone MLA, Daniel McCrossan said that the SDLP was opposed to abortion and to any attempt to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. His insistence came as county Tyrone voters told of their confusion over the party’s pro-life stance, after SDLP leader, Colm Eastwood, advocated a Yes vote in the Republic’s 2018 abortion referendum – which legalised abortion on demand up to 12 weeks. 

At a special conference in 2018, the SDLP decided that it would allow its representatives and members a ‘conscience vote’ on abortion issues, yet not a single member voted against exclusion zones banning pro-life outreach last week, and not a single SDLP MLA signed an urgent petition of concern – which, if it had garnered one more signature by last Thursday, would have stopped the Bill passing, upholding the right to peaceful assembly at abortion centres.

While Mr Eastwood, along with high profile South Belfast MLA, Claire Hanna, have been vocal supporters of the introduction of abortion across the island of Ireland, a majority of the party’s elected representatives have been understood to support the right to life. That has undoubtedly been thrown into question, with ‘pro-life’ MLAs from the SDLP failing to stop the legalisation of wide-ranging abortion in the province in 2019 when they dramatically walked out of the NI Assembly Chamber, eroding all hopes of stopping the extreme abortion legislation, and now, with the same MLAs voting to strip the right to peacefully oppose abortion through prayer vigils and outreaches with pro-life groups at abortion centres.

Precious Life said that a vote for the SDLP is now “a vote for abortion” as they protested the party’s Spring conference in Bellaghy, Co. Derry, on Friday.

Daniel McCrossan MLA

In a 2018 letter in the Ulster Herald, Mr McCrossan wrote: “The SDLP is a pro-life party with a longstanding position on the protection of the life of the unborn child.” At that time, he said that the SDLP was opposed to abortion and any attempt to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, adding: “This remains the party’s position as agreed by a significant majority of party members. As MLA for West Tyrone, I remain strongly pro-life and opposed to abortion.” Mr McCrossan claimed that the party had been driven by protecting human life since its foundation.

“We remained steadfast throughout the Troubles in our opposition to political violence by the state and paramilitaries, and put the preservation and protection of life at the very centre of our politicial work. It is those same values that we have brought to bear in the consideration of the protection of the life of the unborn child, the most vulnerable and most unprotected in our society.” He also said that compassion and support must be provided to women as they experience difficult pregnancies.

He has also repeatedly reiterated his ‘pro-life’ position on social media. While he backed the DUP’s Bill to outlaw disability selective abortions, he has supported exclusion zones banning pro-life prayer and outreach at abortion centres.

Patsy McGlone MLA

Similarly to Mr McCrossan, Mid Ulster MLA Patsy McGlone has repeatedly courted the pro-life vote. In 2016, he tweeted: “Abortion coming up at doorsteps. Personally very proud to be able to say the SDLP has always been pro-life.” 

In 2018, he said he would oppose any attempt to change the law and follow in the footsteps of the Republic. Taking to Twitter in July 2019, Mr McGlone again affirmed his apparent commitment to pro-life issues, stating: “Just sent clear Pro-Life response to over 200 emails I’ve received in last couple of days from constituents complaining about the undemocratic Westminster imposition og abortion on the north #notinmyname”.

However, just a few months later, like Mr McCrossan in September 2019, he also walked out of the NI Assembly Chamber, pulling vital pro-life support for the unborn. Had the SDLP stayed in the Chamber, Unionist politicians and pro-life groups claim they could have prevented the imposition of abortion on the North by the Westminster government. 

Other SDLP MLAs who have, on record, claimed to be in opposition to abortion, include Dolores Kelly, Nichola Mallon, Justin McNulty, Pat Catney, Mark Durkan and Colin McGrath. 

In 2019, Dolores Kelly, Nichola Mallon, John Dallat, Colin McGrath, Daniel McCrossan, Patsy McGlone, Mark Durkan and Justin McGrath all expressed opposition to the impending imposition of aborition on the province, yet failed to pull out of Stormont in protest, a move which sparked criticism from pro-life groups. 

Colin McGrath MLA 

In 2018, following Ireland’s abortion referendum, South Down MLA Colin McGrath said that, although, “as a democrat I respect that vote [..] I remain a pro-life supporter.”

John Dallat MLA 

In October 2019, East Derry MLA Mr Dallat called for an immediate recall of the Assembly to stop the legislation in its tracks; yet, said that the law should “reflect compassion” in cases of rape and life-limiting conditions, calling for abortion in those cases by April 2019.

Dolores Kelly MLA

Dolores Kelly MLA, speaking in October 2019, described the action of MPs in Westminster as “outrageous” and saId that the majority of people and parties in the North opposed abortion provision. While Ms Kelly voted in favour of the DUP’s proposal to stop abortion up to birth for disabilities, she voted in favour of making it a criminal offence to offer support at abortion centres at Second Stage, Consideration Stage and Further Consideration Stage, and also failed to sign the Petition of Concern, ultimately disappointing her pro-life constituents.

Mark Durkan MLA 

As uproar raged from pro-life constituents at the time, Mark Durkan MLA also went on record to defend his pro-life credentials, stating that he was “pro-life and pro-devolution”, adding: “It is a complete abdication of responsibility by parties here to have left us without government for 1000 days. Their refusal to work together has negatively impacted on health, education and our economy and now it is going to give us the most liberal abortion policy on these islands”.

Nicola Mallon MLA 

Nichola Mallon MLA has also been regarded as a pro-life member of the party in the past, and described Westminster’s abortion law as “extreme”. In 2019, she told the Belfast Telegraph: “Decisions affecting the lives of people living in Northern Ireland should be taken by a locally elected and accountable assembly. Review and reform of abortion laws should be done in the Assembly not remotely by Westminster. This legislation is extreme and I do not support it”. However, Ms Mallon has performed an apparent u-turn with regard to her views on abortion since 2019. On 2 April last year, she spoke to the Irish news about her “growing frustration” about the “blocking of abortion” in the North. 

The Irish News reported that she “previously would’ve described herself as pro-life” but now when pressed on whether supporting the commissioning of abortion is at variance with her moral views, she stressed that her responsibilities as Minister come first. 

“As an executive minister I have legal obligations and so I won’t shy away from my legal obligations,” she said.

Earlier this month, Ms Mallon attended a ‘feminism in schools’ conference, which included a pro-abortion rights placard making event in partnership with Alliance for Choice at a Belfast secondary school.

Justin McNulty MLA

In July 2019, SDLP Newry and Armagh Justin McNulty, along with other ‘pro-life’ members of the SDLP, signed a 16,000-strong letter to prime minister Boris Johnson setting out opposition to the imposition of abortion in the North and urging Westminster to abandon the move. 

Pat Catney MLA

Pat Catney MLA has also described himself as pro-life. In November 2018 the MLA for Lagan Valley even attended a fundraiser for pro-life crisis pregnancy support centre, Stanton Healthcare alongside the DUP’s Paul Givan in a show of support for life-affirming options for women.

Just months after that, however, his tone seemed to be changing, with the catalyst being the republic of Ireland’s vote for abortion. Although he described himself as “a pro-life person” to the Belfast Telegraph in June 2018, he told the paper that following Ireland’s decision to legalise abortion in the referendum, he was “ready to listen” and “open to having a conversation”, adding: “I trust the decision that has been made”.

Mr Catney not only backed last week’s Bill criminalising the offer of help at abortion centres, but was also among a select number of SDLP MLAs to vote against protecting unborn children with disabilities from late-term abortions. On 14 December 2021, Catney, despite once gaining votes for his ‘pro-life’ stance, voted against a DUP Bill to remove provision in the 2019 abortion regulations that allows abortion up to birth for the disabilities such as Down syndrome.

THE ULSTER UNIONIST PARTY  

The UUP does not apply a party whip on the issue. However, similarly to the SDLP, voters could be mistaken for thinking that a whip is applied in favour of abortion – with each and every MLA also voting to ban pro-life vigils and outreach. The UUP has also courted the pro-life vote among unionist voters, and MLAs within the party have claimed to be ‘pro-life’. 

Robin Swann MLA

In 2018, former UUP leader and now Health Minister Robin Swann MLA said: “I am pro-life and I am on record as such.” He added: “I am reassured that our party stance on abortion, as being a matter of conscience, is the right one.”

However, the BBC has reported that the NI Health Minister brought forward a proposal to the NI Executive that would have introduced ‘DIY’ home abortion to Northern Ireland, in the form of abortion pills provided without in-person medical supervision. Mr Swann abstained when voting on the DUP’s Bill to ban disability-selective abortions, and voted in favour of exclusion zones at hospitals and abortion centres.

Rosemary Barton MLA

The Fermanagh-south Tyrone MLA has said she opposes abortion, and in all circumstances believes the unborn child should be protected. Speaking in 2017, Ms Barton said:  “I am totally against abortion, I believe when a child is conceived it has the right to be allowed to live.”

As per the Impartial Reporter, Ms Barton said there were “no circumstances” in which she would support abortion. Asked specifically if she agreed with abortion if the woman has been sexually assaulted, Mrs. Barton said: “Again, I am against abortion.”

In 2018, Ms Barton told a journalist when asked about her stance: “I am opposed to the removal of current legislation that provides for abortions in restrictive circumstances without definitive plans in place for any new proposals, which would clearly outline in which circumstances abortions would and would not be permitted.” In 2020, Ms Barton criticised Westminster’s imposed abortion regime allowing unborn babies with disabilities to be aborted up to birth. She said: “Everyone has a right to life; those who are disabled and those who are not must be treated and valued equally.”

While Ms Barton voted to support the DUP’s Bill to stop abortions for disabilities without time limit at both stages in March 2021 and December 2021, she voted consistently in favour of introducing zones to ban pro-life prayer and outreach at abortion centres, and failed to sign the Petition of Concern, much to the disappointment of pro-life groups and Christian churches.

Robbie Butler MLA 

In 2020, Robbie Butler said while he “celebrated [the UUP’s] position of conscience” on the abortion issue, abortion was a “life and death issue,” adding that “two lives matter” in every pregnancy. In an emotional address during a Stormont debate in April of 2020, he said:

“The 21st of October was my most painful day as a politician of any hue. It was a day when I wasn’t able to have my voice heard in this chamber on something which is so important to me.

“I’m a son, I’m a father, I’m a dad. I’m also a foster parent, and me and my wife have fostered many children. And without disclosing the difficulties of the background those children come from, many of them come from the situations that people will use with regard to abortive rights, and I understand the need for parents to, and women in particular, to have their views heard, and especially with regard to health. But, there are two lives that matter here and nothing will shake me from that, that there are two lives that we are talking about.”

“What really galls me,” he continued, “is in relation to how we are going to deal with pregnancies of unborn children with disabilities, with severe fetal impairments. There’s no list, right up to birth. So if you choose to abort a child because of Down syndrome or a club foot or a cleft palette, these regulations will facilitate that. What about the staff? What about their conscientious objection? What about those people who could give a loving home to a child like that? What value do we put on that life?”

“Mr Speaker, I look forward to the day when I do get to say my piece in here, and we can legislate like adults and we can discuss this in an empathetic and sympathetic manner, and represent everybody who should have a voice in this country.”

While the Lagan Valley MLA backed the DUP’s Bill to outlaw abortion up to birth in cases of disabilities, he backed the green party’s bill to enact exclusion zones at every stage, and refused to sign a Petition of Concern to stop the Bill.

WHO CAN PRO-LIFERS ACTUALLY VOTE FOR ON 5 MAY?

Its evident that ‘pro-life’ MLAs from both the SDLP and the UUP have shown a baffling and frustrating ambivalence when it comes to the protection of human life, much to the disappointment and anger of the pro-life people they have repeatedly claimed to represent. 

What’s more, in their unyielding support for exclusion zones, these so-called pro-life MLAs have voted for a measure which is so extreme that it is unheard of in every other part of the UK, where abortion has been legal since 1967, as well as in many other socially liberal countries worldwide. The extreme nature of the law is also mirrored in the result of a public consultation in the region, in which just 0.2% of respondents (13 out of 6,412) backed introducing the zones around abortion centres, and the refusal of ‘pro-life’ MLAs to take such broad-based opposition onboard is testament to their lack of adherence to the will of the people they claim to serve. While claiming to be against abortion and in favour of the right to life, the MLAs listed above have trampled on the rights of pro-lifers, stripping people of the opportunity to pray, witness to life and save lives, while treating with utter contempt people sacrificing their time and energy to offer hope at abortion centres. This cannot be forgotten when Northern Ireland goes to the polls for the Assembly elections on the 5th of May. 

The SDLP are now no different to Sinn Fein, who, for years, duped the public into believing that they were opposed to abortion. Although they have made it clear they are no longer a pro-life party, we can be sure that this is something the SDLP will deny at the doors. The only Catholic and nationalist pro-life party that remain in the North is Aontú, a party which was founded on the protection of life. Aontú, a party striving to elect their first MLAs in this upcoming election, voiced strong opposition to the exclusion zones Bill, stating that it did nothing to provide pregnant women with any positive supports, and simply set women on a one-track path towards abortion. They also labelled the Bill a betrayal of the traditional republican promise of cherishing all the children of the nation equally.

Unionist voters can be assured that the DUP, as well as the TUV, have remained absolutely steadfast in their opposition to abortion, and have kept their pro-life promises to their voters. Pro-life people in the North can vote for the DUP, the TUV and Aontú, but last week’s vote on exclusion zones proves that all other parties, for pro-lifers, are off the table.

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