It does not require the deepest of insights to say that Northern Irish politics is broken. The fact that the national assembly has not sat for 16 months makes that apparent to even the most casual observer. Yet, despite the dysfunctional nature of Northern Ireland’s politics, the region finds itself at the centre of British politics. May’s disastrous General Election campaign last year and subsequent deal with the DUP means that the Unionist party from Northern Ireland holds considerable sway over the UK Government at one of the most significant periods of the UK’s political history. In this context, the Republic of Ireland’s recent referendum result repealing the eighth amendment of their constitution and paving the way to liberalising abortion laws presents a serious challenge to Theresa May’s relationship with the DUP and with her own party.
The Republic of Ireland’s referendum result accentuates how different Northern Ireland is to its neighbours. Soon, Northern Ireland will be the only place in the British Isles where it is illegal for a woman to have an abortion in any circumstances other than when the mother’s life is at risk. Northern Ireland will also be the only place in the British Isles where gay marriage is prohibited, despite the Assembly voting in favour of an equal marriage bill. On both of these issues, polling indicates that, if put to a referendum, the status quo would be overturned.
Northern Ireland’s difficult past enables this situation. Because voters vote largely along sectarian lines rather than on specific issues, it is possible for parties to do incredibly well electorally without actually representing their voters on important issues. The establishment parties – and the DUP in particular – sustain anachronistic but strongly held positions that the public are unable to punish at the ballot box, meaning that change doesn’t happen.
While Northern Ireland remains trapped by a political system that struggles to let go of the past, Theresa May is under significant pressure at home to step in on the abortion issue in Northern Ireland. Advocates of a stronger role for the UK Government include members of her own party, including Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the Health and Social Care Committee.
If Theresa May were convinced to intervene, she has a couple of options. In the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland executive, the UK Government could impose new laws on Northern Ireland. Theresa May is unlikely to do this however, as direct law making could lead to the collapse of the confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP and, more importantly, alienate the people of Northern Ireland. Alternatively, Theresa May could instigate a referendum on abortion in Northern Ireland. This would still provoke the ire of the DUP, but would at least leave the choice to the people of Northern Ireland, something that it would be hard for the DUP to disregard.
Whether Theresa May follows either course of action depends on how strong she considers the DUP’s position. The prevailing view is that the DUP are in a position of unassailable strength; they increased their vote share by 10.3% in the last Westminster election and Theresa May needs them to get Brexit legislation through the Commons. However, the DUP need the Conservative party almost as much: they preside over a policy platform that is increasingly unpopular with their own voters, they have no other means of exercising power in Northern Ireland without a functioning assembly, they support Brexit in a region that voted 56% to 44% to remain, and they need influence over the Conservatives to avoid undesirable Brexit outcomes, such as a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
There is a strong argument that Theresa May could call the DUP’s bluff on this issue. However, her past experience of taking risks makes it unlikely that she will roll the dice this time.