Arlene Foster speaking at the Centre for Economic Empowerment at Belfast in 2011. Photo: Flickr/NICVA Arlene Foster speaking at the Centre for Economic Empowerment at Belfast in 2011. Photo: Flickr/NICVA

The democratic shockwaves of women’s liberation can still create real problems for our rulers, writes Lindsey German   

The tremendous result in the Irish abortion referendum is tribute to years of campaigning for change against the most intransigent forces of church and state. The misery undergone by countless women as a result of this intransigence is unquantifiable. Dangerous abortions, continuing with unwanted pregnancies, damage to mental and physical health, expensive, arduous and lonely trips to other countries to be able to have terminations. All of these have been the fate of Irish women for generations, in times when nearly every other European country has relaxed its restrictions on abortion.

The success of the yes campaign raises the obvious questions that this briefing discussed last week – why the hell is Northern Ireland the anomaly in this situation where now in both islands there are relatively liberal abortion laws? Why have Northern Ireland women been forced to travel to obtain abortion just like their southern sisters? The answer always was that religious opposition to abortion on both sides of the divide between Catholics and Protestants made such liberalisation impossible. That has been blown out of the water by the Irish vote.

So what is stopping it now? A hideous combination of right-wing religious fundamentalism and pragmatic politics on the part of the Tories. The Protestant DUP are bitterly opposed to any liberalisation not just of abortion but women’s rights altogether. They refuse to contemplate any change in the law. Sinn Fein on the other hand has campaigned for yes in the South and will undoubtedly do so in the North as well. The pressure for change should be enormous.

But step in Theresa May. She says this is a matter to be left to Stormont – conveniently ignoring that the Northern Ireland Assembly is deadlocked and hasn’t met for more than a year. So she is effectively backing the bigots’ veto. This is causing her problems even within her own cabinet, and may well come to haunt her. Everyone knows her complicity is about holding on to a parliamentary majority for which she is utterly dependent on the DUP.

It comes at a time when there are talks of plots from Michael Gove to become a caretaker leader until 2022. It’s hard to see how any of them can deal with the regressive politics that an alliance with the DUP entails.

While many see the issue as one of individual morality, there is a strong class question round abortion. Rich women have always been able to obtain safe abortions, but this is denied to working class and poor women in many situations. In Ireland particularly there is also the question of the nature of the Irish state and its neighbour north of the border. The Irish movement for independence was one of great significance challenging the British empire in its nearest and oldest outpost. This movement was often very socially progressive, involved women as central actors and was influenced by socialism and feminism.

Women such as Constance Markievicz fought bravely not just for a socialist republic but for women’s rights, as did many other women and men involved in that struggle.

The defeat of the left in that movement – and especially the partition of Ireland which followed the civil war – led to what Irish revolutionary James Connolly once predicted as a ‘carnival of reaction north and south’. It led the rulers of the southern state to effectively rule it in conjunction with the Catholic Church. In the north meanwhile, the Protestant state combined religious bigotry and prejudice with material repression of the Catholic population.

It is this duality which has led to the restrictive laws and attitudes to women’s bodies. The referendum last week put the nail in the coffin of such attitudes and marks the beginning of the end for the Northern bigots as well. There must now be a huge campaign across Ireland but also in Britain to change the law in Northern Ireland and to demand a woman’s right to choose across the two islands.

May and Foster are incredibly vulnerable on this issue and it is one of the most basic justice. The women of Ireland deserve justice on this question. Just another reason May should go and take her rotten DUP bigots with her.

Democracy Italian style – with EU blessing

The Italian president – elected only by an electoral college – has decided that the government chosen following the recent election cannot be allowed to stand. Instead, he has appointed a former IMF official to head a government. This is the second time in 7 years that Italy has had its prime minister imposed. This is because they fear a referendum on the euro and this cannot be tolerated. While those on the left might not like the victors in the election – especially their reactionary position on migration – the way to defeat right-wing parties is not by staging palace coups against them but by campaigning and fighting their policies.

Instead, there is once again a technocrat, pro-EU government which has deliberately thwarted the expressed popular vote. It is not going to end well. It can only increase cynicism with the democratic process and help build the right – especially the far right Lega, which was to form a government with the 5 star movement.

It is another example of the undemocratic nature of neoliberal capitalism in general and its EU defenders in particular. They, like Alastair Campbell, spit feathers about populism – by which they mean anyone who opposes their policies – while creating the conditions which voters increasingly reject.

It strikes me as completely myopic for those who want to stay in the EU after the referendum to ignore these processes, playing once again in Italy but also given full rein in Greece, and threatened to any state not prepared to accept the privatisation, encroachment on working conditions and pro-austerity policies which are a hallmark of the EU.

Already it has been made clear that one reason for the EU tough stance on trade after Brexit is that it fears a pro-nationalisation Corbyn government. We shouldn’t fall for the idea that such a government would face anything but the bitterest opposition.

Meanwhile, huge demos in France are challenging the policies of the pro-EU Macron presidency. And in Berlin tens of thousands took to the streets to defeat the racist far right AfD. This is the sort of Europe I want to be part of – and it stands in bitter opposition to the EU institutions.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.