Ireland's abortion referendum could open a huge fault line in Theresa May's fragile government

GettyBritish Prime Minister Theresa May.
  • Ireland’s abortion vote could be an earthquake for Theresa May’s government.
  • Senior women in May’s party now want abortion legalised in Northern Ireland, but siding with them risks angering the DUP, whom she relies on for support on key parliamentary votes.
  • But demuring to the DUP would put her at loggerheads with some of most powerful women in her party and risk angering British voters who support abortion.
  • It’s a huge political problem for May, which she could never have forecast when she struck a confidence and supply deal with the DUP last year.

Ireland’s landslide vote to abolish a ban on abortion could prise open a huge fault line in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government.

That’s the reality May woke up to on Sunday morning, as it became clear that she will have to reconcile a now-vocal campaign for Northern Ireland to legalise abortion with her political partnership with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which staunchly objects to the early termination of pregnancy.

After Ireland voted 66.4% in favour of abolishing a ban on abortion on Friday, senior figures in May’s Conservative government began calling for similar action in Northern Ireland.

The Sunday Times reported that Women and Equalities Minister Penny Mordaunt supports a free vote in British Parliament on the issue, with more than 130 MPs prepared to back an amendment to the domestic violence bill that would relax abortion legislation in Northern Ireland.

This is possible because Westminster effectively has direct rule over Northern Ireland, which does not currently have a devolved government after the DUP and Sinn Féin repeatedly failed to broker a power-sharing agreement.

“A historic & great day for Ireland, & a hopeful one for Northern Ireland. That hope must be met,” Mordaunt tweeted on Saturday.She was backed by Education Minister Anne Milton on Sunday, who told ITV show “Peston on Sunday” that there “should be” a free vote, and she would support liberalising existing laws.

The Sunday Times listed four other senior female Conservative MPs, including former Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Justine Greening, who support abortion being legalised in Northern Ireland.

But the trouble for May is that if she sides with the women in her party, she risks angering the DUP, which has fought hard to halt an extension of abortion rights to Northern Ireland.

May’s Conservative government holds a fragile majority in UK Parliament thanks to a confidence and supply deal with DUP. Support from the DUP allows the government to force policy through the House of Commons. A breakdown in this deal could be catastrophic for the government’s Brexit plans and other vital policy votes.

On the other hand, demuring to the DUP would put at loggerheads with some of most powerful women in her party and risk angering British voters who support abortion.

The prime minister’s conundrum was summed up neatly by BBC presenter Andrew Marr.

Speaking on “The Andrew Marr Show,” he said: “This is a huge political problem for Theresa May as well, which is that she relies on the DUP. They have very strong and clear views against the liberalisation of abortion and this [The Sunday Times story] suggests that leading Tory women are going to revolt in the House of Commons and impose a change on abortion on Northern Ireland, which would threaten the entire government.”

“It shows why politics is such a difficult trade. Theresa May has the election, has to do a deal with the DUP, gets a majority back in and at no point would she have thought: ‘The trouble is in 2018, the Irish are going to vote to change their abortion laws and that’s going to create a problem for the DUP in Northern Ireland, and therefore I better factor that in.’ Nobody would have thought that way.”

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