A few months back, Belfast City Council debated an apparently innocuous motion, that “this Council recognises that all individuals have the right to healthcare, which includes that healthcare should be physically accessible and within safe reach for all sections of the population. People should not face fear and intimidation when accessing healthcare services.
“Therefore, the Council condemns all harassment and intimidation taking place outside facilities in Belfast and Northern Ireland that offer reproductive healthcare, including attempts to physically block access to facilities, verbal intimidation, and the filming and recording of staff and clients entering and leaving the building.”
One could ask how could anyone object to such a motion? Why was such a motion necessary? It was, though, one of those tricky situations in which politicians can find themselves.
All was not simple. The debate which ensued referred to “activism” outside “healthcare facilities” in Belfast, where it was alleged that the users of reproductive healthcare facilities had been harassed by activists.
Everyone knew that this motion was not a general motion as it appeared to be. Rather it was about challenging pro-life campaigners who have been protesting in support of life in one Belfast street. The debate was articulated in noble terms - that people, “mainly women” should not be harassed when trying to seek advice about abortion in situations where the pregnancy was the result of “rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality.” There was talk of “verbal and physical assault of those seeking such advice”, of “a barrage of unsolicited material” and “verbal intimidation”.
The healthcare facilities referred to were, as everyone knew, the premises at which the Stop Marie Stopes Campaign were conducting a pro-life vigil.
So, although the motion was crafted as an attempt to protect those using Belfast healthcare facilities, everyone knew it was about pro-life campaigners’ activities at the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast. There was reference to “that building,” and a request was made for a recorded vote, so that the public could see who voted and in what way.
I should be very clear at this point that I do not support harassment or intimidation of any kind. Where they occur they should be dealt with by the law. That is what happens.
The SDLP considered the motion and rightly concluded that the SDLP is opposed to intimidation of any kind. They then concluded that the specific motion did not relate to any change in the law in relation to abortion rights, and issued “a clear directive that SDLP councillors should support the motion”.
Three SDLP councillors, decided that they couldn’t vote for the motion on grounds of conscience.
Councillors Pat Convery, a former Lord Mayor of Belfast who has represented the SDLP for 16 years, Kate Mullan, who has served six years and Declan Boyle, who has served three years abstained. They were all suspended from the party. One of them, Declan Boyle, was reported to have said, “I’m disappointed that the SDLP has suspended me for voting pro-life. I thought the position of the party was pro-life…I don’t support the harassment or intimidation of anyone, but I do believe in standing up for the rights of the unborn.”
On June 19, still suspended by their party for their actions, those three councillors resigned from the SDLP. They no longer felt that they could belong to the SDLP. Councillor Convery said that “moral issues should be a matter of personal conscience and party policy should reflect that”.
That the SDLP should lose three of its seven councillors in Belfast was bad. That it was unable to negotiate the tricky waters of a motion which did not name what it was really about, by recognising the right to freedom of conscience, and hence not compelling its members to vote for the motion, was worse.
Like those three councillors, had I been in that situation I would not have voted for the motion in the circumstances in which they found themselves. I, too, would have abstained.
Although I do not believe anyone should ever be subject to intimidation, I do believe that the right to freedom of opinion and expression on this issue, is one of the most basic human rights and must be protected. The right to speak and protest in defence of the unborn is profoundly important. Children in the womb cannot speak up to assert their right to life. They must rely on others.
There is no right to abortion under human rights law, although many seek to claim that there is. For me the pro-life protest was, and is, the expression of those freedoms. If protestors transgress the law, then they should be dealt with under the law.
Abortion is illegal under the law in Northern Ireland, except in very limited circumstances. People have the right, under the law, to campaign against abortion and to try to inform those who, for whatever reason seek an abortion, just as Marie Stopes’ clinic has the right, under the law, to provide information about abortion.
Our rights to freedom of speech, belief and opinion are rights for which people fought over centuries. They were the product of the values which informed our society. It is profoundly important that political parties of all kinds reflect on this. Membership of a political party can never justify a demand that someone act against their own deeply held beliefs.
Politicians across Ireland need great courage to stand for what they believe in. Sometimes that can be difficult. The people of Ireland, however, need politicians who are prepared to act in accordance with their beliefs, even when they do not conform to party policy. Above all Ireland needs political parties which respect their human rights of freedom of expression, belief and opinion.
It is ironic that this meeting of Belfast City Council started with the reading by the Lord Mayor, of a verse from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, (12:2) “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good pleasing and perfect will.”
I think that is what these three brave councillors did.