[conference update] Amnesty International Northern Ireland conference, 6 Feb.2016

Amnesty International Northern Ireland held its regional conference on Saturday 6th February 2016 at the Queen’s University Students’s Union.

The main panel included presentations and updates about on-going Amnesty NI campaigns and major struggles for fundamental rights in the specific context of Northern Ireland, including the thorny issue of dealing with the past, the on-going struggle for reproductive justice and equal marriage. The conference also prioritised the Northern Ireland-specific implications of the Westminster government’s plans to repeal the Human Rights Act.

Speaking about the work of the Human Rights Consortium, human rights advocate Adrienne Reilly, noted that due to local discrepancies, it is vital to develop a clear strategy on the promotion and protection of human rights, especially in campaigning to prevent the repeal of the Human Rights Act (HRA). Reilly highlighted the importance of coordinating and supporting initiatives to defend the HRA, upholding arguments that especially concern Northern Ireland (such as the vital importance and relevance of the HRA in Northern Ireland, especially the fact that the Northern Ireland’s human rights mechanisms – a crucial component of the peace process and of the Belfast Agreement – are largely built upon the European Convention of Human Rights, via the HRA.

If the HRA were to be repealed, it would certainly have a drastic impact on the human rights-related provisions of the Belfast Agreement, and consequently jeopardise the already challenging path to coexistence and reconciliation. Reilly further emphasised the importance of orienting the #saveourHRA campaign towards the general public, mobilising all HRA supporters to a single platform. A key element of this body of work involves countering reactionary perceptions and propaganda, and the constant task of myth-busting. Reilly especially emphasised the commitment of the Human Rights Consortium to work in partnership with other organisations and work collectively in defending the HRA. There was strong consensus in the panel that national security and state secrets-related cover-ups should no longer be tolerated, and that family members of victims have every right to discover the truth about atrocities inflicted upon their loved ones.

Addressing the extremely challenging issue of securing reproductive justice, Kellie O’Dowd of Alliance for Choice highlighted how Northern Ireland – not unlike many other Commonwealth member states (especially New Commonwealth countries in the global South) – continues to be entangled in restrictive Victorian-era legislation, such as the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which continues to be in force in the province. Despite acute obstacles, Alliance for Choice continues to campaign to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. Simultaneously, the organisation sees an important path forward in launching new and creative forms of pro-choice campaigning, such as the ‘Trust Women’ campaign (#trustwomen), which involves direct interactions with politicians across the sectarian divide, calling upon them to admit openly that they ‘trust women’.

O’Dowd also evoked the failed attempt of 2007 to extend the jurisdiction of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, and how MPs from Northern Ireland at Westminster (from across the sectarian divide) lobbied with the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to prevent the move, in exchange of political favours of voting with the Labour Party in the House of Commons. In sum,extending the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland remains nearly impossible, given the political stalemate caused by the anti-reproductive justice positions of the main parties.

John O’Doherty, head of the Rainbow Project (RP), highlighted the importance of extending equal marriage legislation to Northern Ireland. Politicians in the Northern Ireland Executive can no longer remain oblivious to equal marriage, in the backdrop of the legislation being fully active in the rest of the United Kingdom, as well as in the Republic of Ireland. The relentlessly positive attitude of the yes campaign in the Republic of Ireland is echoed in Northern Ireland, where there is considerable public support to the enactment of equal marriage legislation. O’Doherty also touched upon some of RP’s awareness raising initiatives, such as the ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, launched with the objective of encouraging  more and more people to understand the rationale behind and support  equal marriage. He also outlined that as a consequence of the existing political hurdles, the extension of equal marriage legislation to Northern Ireland could take a minimum of five more years.

Overall,  a point that was repeatedly highlighted throughout this one-day conference was that Northern Ireland’s provincial political establishment is pervaded by a clear aversion to the fundamental rights of the province’s citizens. What is most laughable is that the local polity (except smaller and progressive parties such as the Green Party, and the Labour Party in Northern Ireland – which carries out many public engagements despite its ban on contesting elections in Northern Ireland) is preventing people from benefitting from fundamental rights that are fully guaranteed to citizens in other constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Concerning equal marriage, Northern Ireland is the only place in the British Isles to block equal marriage legislation. As for reproductive justice, the remit of the local debate is woefully narrow, evident in the tendency among politicians and many religious leaders to zoom in on ‘abortion’, creating abject fantasy narratives such as the simply daft argument that inclusive legislation would result in ‘abortion on demand’.

Instead of such farcical excesses, what is needed is a comprehensive and inclusive approach to reproductive justice, focusing on bodily autonomy, on a par with existing  European human rights legislation. When a cisgender woman, trans man, or a person of any other gender identity gets pregnant, it is up to each and every individual to decide on how their wish to proceed. No full-fledged citizen should be constrained to follow a law that has been imposed upon them and their body by a male-dominated über-patriarchal political establishment.

Choice is the word of the day, and this certainly does not imply a total disregard to people’s reservations on reproductive justice due to their own moral positions. This writer, for one, deeply respects such positions, but believes that they should apply their ideas exclusively to themselves. If a politician claims that they are opposed to the full implementation of the 1967 Act in Northern Ireland and comes up with a restrictive discourse, they are indeed free to follow that discourse if they get pregnant themselves. Being a politician, a religious leader or any other public figure does not give anyone carte blanche to impose their perceptions on morality on other free citizens.

The fact that Northern Ireland’s local political leaders – especially of the larger parties – cannot take stock of this basic reality is extremely unfortunate and shameless, to say the least. In the reproductive rights debate at the Northern Ireland Assembly this evening (10 February 2016), several female MLAs also expressed extremely anti-Choice views, which makes the situation even more pathetic and extremely grim, especially for cis women, trans men and other gender-plural people who, due to financial constraints, are not in a position to afford reproductive justice-related services outside the province.

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