Debates over issues of reproductive or sexual freedom in Northern Ireland usually turn into one of a few things:
- a manifestation of the confessional stranglehold on our public life.
- proof of the horror Some feel that Others might actually want, as competent adults, to set the parameters of their own bodily and sexual integrity.
- evidence that nothing terrifies the male establishment (especially the religious robe-wearing section thereof) more than the female reproductive tract. Except possibly female control over it.
- a great rush of glee by Both Sides as they discover an aspect of That Old Time Religion that Unites Us All.
However, to me, these questions are mostly about citizenship. And that has never been illustrated more perfectly, or sadly, than by the case currently under a great deal of discussion in the press. I know the woman in question has allowed her name to enter the public domain, but I feel uncomfortable using it.
If that woman had been a citizen, even just a resident of any of the three other nations of the United Kingdom, at that terrible, terrible time when she had to act to end her carriage of a conception that would, could never be a child, she would have been able to have had the necessary procedure in her own home city, surrounded by her own family.
But, as she is a citizen of Northern Ireland, she had instead to travel, like a refugee or a fugitive, to Great Britain, away from all things and people her own. Imagine how she and her partner felt packing and preparing for that trip. Imagine sitting in the airport. Airports are usually places of energy, expectation. How on earth did it feel for her? And, imagine if she and her partner had been stopped at the Police desk in her destination airport and asked What is the purpose of your journey?
“Pro-life”? God spare your life from a moment like that.
We have many debates over political identity here. The Good Friday Agreement is in many ways our Constitution, and (oddly, sort of) gives us the only written Constitution in the UK.
But we have damn little in the way of citizenship. As that poor woman and her partner found out. We live in a nation called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We are not a colony, a backyard, an annex, a “possession”, a “territory” or God’s Little Acre.
I’ve always had a regard for Tom King, now Lord King of Bridgwater, because he was the first NI Secretary who seemed to regard us as full citizens of the UK, and spoke to and about us as such. Many Secretaries of State before and after him talked down to us like colonial governors. He did not. It was during his tenure that the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed, setting in motion the processes of development which produced the Northern Ireland of today. It is a work very much in progress, but it has achieved much. Institutionally. I think we need to see the same degree of achievement in the development of the other half of the political dyad. If we want a Northern Ireland that competes and wins economically and socially, it needs to be populated by empowered, equal citizens. Clearly, we see this week, it is not.