ABORTION is expected to become legal in Ireland later this year, following the unexpectedly decisive result of a referendum on the topic on May 25th. Irish voters chose by a 66:34 majority to repeal a constitutional amendment restricting abortion. As a result, attention is now turning to the situation in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal unless the risk to the mother’s health is severe. The region has resolutely declined to adopt the more liberal approach to abortion seen in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Abortion Act was passed in the United Kingdom in 1967, allowing doctors to perform abortions so long as certain conditions had been met. But the law in Northern Ireland was not changed, and remained as it had since Victorian times. The region’s devolved legislature was dominated by the Ulster Unionist Party, which in an unusual alliance with the Catholic church firmly opposed the legalisation of abortion. In subsequent years, Protestant and Catholic churches in Northern Ireland quietly co-operated to oppose moves to update the law, with the late Ian Paisley, founder of both the Free Presbyterian church and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), leading the way. As a result thousands of Northern Irish women have ended up travelling to England to terminate pregnancies. In one recent 14-year period the numbers crossing the Irish Sea exceeded 800 every year. Although this exodus was no secret, it was generally mentioned in whispers. “She got the boat,” was the phrase often used. Awareness of this situation in the rest of the UK was limited. Politicians in Belfast preferred not to broadcast the arrangement, which women’s groups and other campaigners increasingly denounced as the exporting of misery.

When the Northern Ireland Assembly came into being in 1998 its powers included the right to legislate on abortion. In the last few years it has seen a number of debates on the subject, in an effort to introduce a new law. But the DUP has always had the votes to defeat all pro-abortion motions. The party has a powerful fundamentalist Protestant element in its ranks and especially within its leadership. Opinion polls indicate, however, that the views of the party’s supporters are more liberal. And in the aftermath of the Irish referendum result, the clamour for change is likely to grow. Indeed, across the Irish Sea pressure to support liberalisation in Northern Ireland has been building within the major Westminster-based parties. Penny Mordaunt, minister for women and equality, described the result as “a historic and great day for Ireland and a hopeful one for Northern Ireland.” An education minister, Anne Milton, and the former equality minister, Justine Greening, also voiced their support.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, was quick to say that the Dublin result “has no impact” on the law in Northern Ireland. She said she disapproved of activists in the Republic “taking to the streets in celebration.” Although support for reform appears to be growing at Westminster, a complication for Theresa May is the leverage that Mrs Foster and her party have over the Tory administration. In return for additional spending in Northern Ireland the DUP’s ten MPs provide valuable support for Mrs May in Brexit votes. Both the government and the DUP are anxious to avoid a rift which might disturb this relationship. One possible outcome, given the continuing suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, is that the Westminster government will indeed legislate on the matter. This could allow the DUP to register its fierce opposition to anything which could lead to the introduction of abortion, and vote against any relevant bill at Westminster, while not, in all likelihood, affecting the overall result. The DUP could pose as a party that is going down fighting, while keeping its deal with the Tories in place.