The Olivia O'Leary column‘Is it possible that the abortion issue might be the one that breaks the tribal lines in the North?’

As heard on Drivetime

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Nobody knows more than the fella in the pub. The combined knowledge of a dozen university departments are as nothing when compared with the profound wisdom of the fella in the pub. The same fella knew more about having babies, about classical music, about politics than any of us who might claim some expertise in the area.

Indeed, my husband, wandering in after a hard night on the town in 1986 announced to me that the fella in the pub had just told him what was going to happen in the Northern Ireland by-elections that January. The by-elections had been caused when Unionist MPs resigned in protest to force a sort of referendum about the hated Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The fella in the pub said that all the Unionists would be resoundingly re-elected and my man had put down a £500 bet on it. “A great bet”, he said. “We’ll have a powerful summer holiday”. “You bloody eejit”, said I. “We’ll have no holiday at all.”

Because what the fella in the pub ignored was that there was a natural Nationalist majority in certain constituencies like Newry and Armagh. So, Séamus Mallon carried off an historic win for the Nationalist SDLP. Anybody who’d worked in the North, as I had, knew that voters divide down tribal lines.

So, when Arlene Foster said this weekend that she’d had a hundred Sinn Féin messages pledging to vote DUP because of the party’s stance on abortion, my ears pricked up. Another DUP figure, Ian Paisley Jr, said that he’d had a letter from the local priest assuring him that he’s urging his parishioners to vote DUP because of their stance on abortion.

Is it possible that the abortion issue might be the one that breaks the tribal lines in the North? Take the SDLP, who’ve has a traditional anti-abortion stance and one of whose veteran MLAs, barrister Alban Maginness, weighed in on the anti-abortion side of a radio debate on Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme this afternoon. He said that the people of Northern Ireland should have been consulted about the abortion referendum in the Republic. And if there were to be a United Ireland, people in the North should retain their autonomy and have their own assembly in which they would make their own laws on issues like abortion.

He was saying pretty much what Unionist Jim Allister said a few minutes later. That Westminster, which is debating the Northern Ireland abortion regime this afternoon, should butt out and let Northern Ireland decide on its own social issues as it always had. An unexpected alliance.

Add to this, the common ground between the Catholic Church and the DUP on same-sex marriage. Is it all a warning to Mary Lou McDonald that her photograph after the repeal referendum victory with Michelle O’Neill holding ‘The North is next’ banner was a step too far for many of Sinn Féin’s Northern Catholic electorate?

Well, not really. Sinn Féin rarely make that sort of mistake. They know that successive opinion polls in the North have shown that a majority of people want change, even though Northern Catholics have been traditionally more conservative than down here. Both SDLP and Sinn Féin are to have special conferences this month. The anti-abortion SDLP to allow freedom of conscience for those members who want to campaign or vote for a change in the abortion law and Sinn Fein to decide whether to follow their leader and accept the proposed government policy including the up-to-12-week ‘abortion on request’ clause.

In her short time as Sinn Fein president, Mary Lou McDonald has done an impressive job of catching the mood of the moment, of presenting Sinn Féin as the sort of modern, liberal party that the so-far resistant middle-class voters in the Republic will vote for. She’s consciously challenged the old guard’s traditional attitudes on abortion. She’s said yet again today that she wants to go into government with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, something the old guard won’t like. On a cross-community visit to Derry and Donegal recently, she consciously used the word ‘Londonderry’ as well as ‘Derry’, something the old guard hated.

But all that is window-dressing unless she addresses the real issue for Sinn Féin. The almost 1,800 deaths for which the Provisional Republican Movement was responsible during The Troubles. Unless she apologises unreservedly for them and the terrible grief and pain that they caused. Sure, the old guard and the fella in the pub won’t like it. But that apology will cross class barriers. That apology will cross tribal barriers. It’s time we heard it.

For more from Drivetime on RTÉ Radio 1, click here.

© The Listener 2018

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