News that Northern Irish supporters of Republican Sinn Fein are considering voting for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) because of the party's uncompromising stance on abortion, demonstrate yet again the complexity of this small corner of the United Kingdom. Not to mention exposing hypocrisy on all sides when discussing this odd cluster of statelets off the coast of mainland Europe.
DUP leader, Arlene Foster ,says Sinn Fein voters—most of them Catholic—contacted her party because they were deeply concerned by the result of the abortion referendum south of the border in the Republic. There, voters in favour of repealing the 1983 Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, won by a 66% to 34% landslide, leading to promises by Prime Minister Leo Eric Varadkar to push through new legislation as soon as possible.
The referendum highlights the fact that the Republic has transformed over the past 30 years from a backward, conservative and deeply religious country where contraception and divorce were outlawed until recently, into a modern European state. The fact that Varadkar, who is gay and of Indian descent, is PM shows how much has changed. The Catholic Church with its pedophile scandals, brutal children's homes, its harsh and hypocritical stance on abortion, homosexuality and contraception, is fading fast, and attendance at Mass is down to 2 or 3 per cent in some working- class areas, according to the Irish Times. Revelations about mass graves at children's homes, the plight of laundry-room women who conceived out of wedlock, and the brutality of the Christian Brothers have all contributed to a seismic shift in how religious organizations are perceived.
Meanwhile, north of the border, religious hardliners on both sides retain their grip. Catholic and Presbyterian extremists have much in common: anti-gay, anti-abortion, sharing a vision of a vengeful God and eternal damnation that is losing its appeal among younger voters but remains alluring to traditionalists.
Ireland's referendum lays bare the contradictory stance of the Unionists, whose support has kept UK PM Theresa May in power in a minority government. The Unionists demand to be treated exactly the same as their counterparts across the Irish Sea, and in particular their refusal to tolerate any sort of border between the Six Counties (often incorrectly called "Ulster") and the British mainland; yet they also demand to make their own laws on issues like abortion.
Abortion remains illegal in all but the most extreme of circumstances in Northern Ireland, which means hundreds of women must make their way to Britain each year for safe termination of a pregnancy. Now, perhaps mischievously, Varadkar says such women may even be able to travel to the Republic for the procedure. Theresa May is under increasing pressure to liberalize the law in Northern Ireland but, despite the fact many younger people there would be in favour—as demonstrated at a march in favour of abortion rights in Belfast—the DUP will continue to resist.
It is, if you'll pardon the pun, an unholy mess, and threatens once again to complicate the issue of Brexit. There is still no breakthrough in the contentious issue of a hard or soft border between the North and South, and not even any hint of how one might be achieved. Put simply, the Unionists - so-called because they are strongly in favour of remaining in the Union with England, Scotland and Wales will not tolerate any sort of border between themselves and the mainland, even though a natural one already exists—the Irish Sea. Meanwhile, Republican Sinn Fein, who are in favour of the Six Counties being reunited with the 26 counties of the Republic, will absolutely not tolerate a return to the hard border between the two countries which was such a feature of the Troubles in which more than 3,600 people died from the late 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Nevertheless, there are a number of possible solutions to the current impasse even if none are palatable to everyone involved. The most obvious solution, of course, is a United Ireland. The Six Counties (three other Ulster counties are in the South, including Donegal, which is further north than Northern Ireland!) were separated from the Republic in the 1920s and have always had a majority Protestant population. However, this isn't just about religion; it is about statehood and, of course, money. For much of this time, the North was far richer than the South—but no longer.
Perhaps the North needs its own referendum on whether to remain within the UK or join the Republic as a United Ireland. But then, surely the people of Britain AND Ireland also deserve a say?
Where does it stop? Besides, if the North left the union, wouldn't Scotland demand the same? (Ironic though that the Scots talk about "taking back control" from Westminster but throw toys out of pram when the UK "takes back control" from Brussels). And what about poor little Wales—often forgotten, its voice deafened out by louder voices—is there any appetite there for independence?
And don't get me started on the Isle of Man and Channel Islands, which aren't part of the UK but whose citizens are British…
Confused? I know I am too—and I'm British. Or rather, English. Many of whose number are growing increasingly irritated by the fact that Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh politicians have a say in our Parliament, but we have relatively little say in theirs (the so-called "West Lothian question"). There are even calls for a distinct English parliament, but most people suspect that would be just another costly talking shop.
So what IS the answer? My Irish grandmother used to say, "If you know the answer to the Irish problem, you don't understand the question.” Nevertheless, to me there is only one logical solution: a guarantee that at some point, perhaps a hundred years from now (a short period of time where the UK and Ireland are concerned), the Six Counties will rejoin the 26 and there will be a United Ireland—a modern, outward-looking, European and no longer Britain's poor relation, but a democratic beacon and symbol of progress: an example to Britain and to the world.
Political Journalist (London) and Author