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Abortion abstention at Stormont

What is it that makes Sinn Fein a left party?

21 March 2021

Among all the other elements of a dysfunctional and corrupt administration in the North of Ireland basic abortion rights stand high.

The Democratic Unionist Party have blocked reform and threatened health staff so that abortion is effectively out of the reach of most women.  The Westminster Parliament threatened to act unilaterally as a weapon to force the DUP back into government.  When the DUP did not respond they acted to legalise abortion rights.

That was a year ago. The health minister has done nothing, claiming that he needs cross party support to implement the law.  DUP bigot Paul Girvan has introduced a bill to modify the law and make it ineffective.  The British have responded by announcing that they will act to implement abortion rights, leading to a storm of DUP protest.

However, it is the minor key that deserves most attention. When the issue was debated in the Stormont assembly Sinn Féin abstained, leading to a wave of horror and incredulity among local feminists and reformist socialists.

Sinn Fein is easily explained.  For most of its life it has been an anti-abortion party. In the run up to the 26 County referendum on abortion it held a special conference. This did not support abortion.  It simply gave the leadership power to decide on the issue. They called for a yes vote.  However, the campaign was a popular front with the government against a weakened Catholic right and the wording of the referendum fell well short of a right to choose. Outside of a 12-week window most working-class women struggle to gain access to heavily circumscribed abortion rights.

In real life Sinn Fein's position is not that far away from the DUP's. In any case the earlier decision led to a split and the formation of Aontú, a republican anti-abortion party, and Sinn Fein wants to avoid a flow of votes in that direction.

Why should this shock the feminists and the left? The answer is that reformist ideology in the North is based on a level of hallucination. Almost everyone, following the lead of the Trade Unions and the Communist Party, accepts the St Andrews Agreement.  That requires a belief that the local administration can be used to reform society. The most right-wing version of this ideology argues that local politicians, without regard to party or class, can be pressured to support reform. A more realistic version accepts the reactionary nature of the DUP. Sinn Fein however, are on the left and can be used as a conduit into government.

The abortion vote shows very clearly that Sinn Fein is not a left-wing party, and this has consequences both North and South.

In the North progress is in practice is dependent on the British Tory government.  They are unlikely to allow the DUP to stand on their toes, but they will not provide expansive abortion rights. A focus on Westminster obstructs the formation of activist feminist and socialist movements. These are reduced to lonely lobbying groups on the steps of Stormont.

The Sinn Fein vote had less impact in the Southern state. However, the central strategy of most left groups centres around a future left government led by the former republican party. Again, this is the ideology of hallucination.

That strategy has accelerated reformism and a dependence on parliamentary resolutions. This in turn depresses the possibility of independent working-class action.  To build a workers’ movement we must turn away from a St Andrews Agreement that mollifies unionist bigotry and a parliamentarianism that relies on the corrupt institutions of Stormont and the Dail.

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