Why was it so easy for Northern Irish parties to betray their voters on abortion?

The recent decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland is heartbreaking news for us, as it is for all pro-lifers. It’s hard to find something to say about it that hasn’t been ably said already.

Having had a few days to think about the whole thing, though, one question kept bothering me. We’ve heard a lot about how the Northern parties have betrayed their voters. I want to know: why did they find it so easy to do so?

What we saw in the North certainly looked like a clear cut example of a situation where parties did not act in accordance with the will of their voters. A recent opinion poll from LucidTalk, commissioned by the pro-life group Both Lives Matter, found that a majority of NI voters opposed the recent legislation. The Belfast Telegraph reports that when asked the question ‘Do you support the changes voted for at Westminster that will impose a new abortion regime in Northern Ireland?’, 52% of respondents opposed the changes, 39% supported them, and 9% didn’t know. Opposition to the law was stronger than support for it across all age groups, even amoung the youngest voters.

If you delve into the poll’s crosstabs and break down the results by party, the picture gets even more striking. 77% of DUP voters opposed the change while only 17% supported it. Among SDLP voters, the figure was 61% opposition to 31% support. The UUP also had a majority of voters opposing, though a slim one. Only Sinn Fein, Alliance, and Green voters supported the change (and the gap in Sinn Fein’s case was closer than I’d have expected: 52% supporting, 38% opposed, 10% don’t know).

How did the parties actually act? Of the four major parties only SF acted according to the preferences of a majority of its voters. Yes, they stood idly by as the British government imposed a massive legislative reform on Northern Ireland, proving that apart from anything else they completely lack any sense of irony, but a slim majority of their supporters backed that move.

But the SDLP, despite still being a nominally pro-life party, made no meaningful effort to provide cross-community support to any efforts to block the decriminalisation, nor did they hammer Sinn Fein on the issue in an attempt to peel off some of that substantial minority of pro-life SF voters.

The DUP, despite making a lot of noise about the issue, weren’t much better. They refused to countenance trading off concessions on the Irish language act for guarantees on abortion, and they also made no attempt to use their substantial leverage in Westminster to extract concessions on the matter. It’s hard not to conclude that at least a substantial proportion of DUP politicians are basically fine with abortion so long as they can wash their hands of it.

If you look at the SDLP and DUP in particular, the ‘betrayal’ narrative looks right. So why were those parties able to get away with it? If so many of their voters opposed this change, how come they felt so comfortable selling those voters down the river? Come to think of it, why didn’t Sinn Fein get more flack from the 38% of their voters who opposed it? Why aren’t disaffected nationalists voting for a party like Aontú, which seems to offer a very similar policy mix minus support for abortion?

It certainly looks like the parties won’t be punished by their voters. Blogging at Slugger O’Toole, Alan Meban points out  that there was almost no talk about abortion at the recent DUP conference. And if you look at recent polls, there’s no evidence of pro-life voters changing allegiances in any significant way, or even threatening to abstain. The most significant trend is a surge in support for Alliance, a pro-choice party.

It looks like if there was a betrayal of voters by the Northern parties, it was an extremely successful one. Why?

The answer is, in short, preference intensity. In simple terms, it’s unfortunately the case that just because a person opposes abortion does not mean that opposition to abortion is a political priority for them. Hard as it may be to believe for many of us convinced pro-lifers, a person may oppose abortion but care far more about other political issues, and not be particularly inclined to vote on the the issue in politics. That’s why we’re not seeing the NI parties pay a political cost.

Much the same is true south of the border. Here in the Republic, we often hear some variant of ‘if any political party won as many votes as the No side did in the Repeal referendum, they would be the largest party in the country’. But for many No voters, abortion is simply not a political priority. A Behaviour and Attitudes exit poll taken during the 2016 general election revealed that only 2% of people said abortion was the issue that most influenced their first-preference vote. Two per cent. Only another 2% said it was the second-most-influential issue for them. And that’s counting both pro-life and pro-choice people who said abortion was a priority issue for them.

You can see the whole list of influential issues here:

https://static.rasset.ie/documents/news/rte-exit-poll-report.pdf

This is strange to pro-lifers like me: if we really believe that abortion is the killing of a person, how could it not be a priority in politics? But most voters, even among the third who voted No to repeal, don’t see it that way – nor, apparently, do most voters in the North.

I am reminded of a conversation a friend of mine had with an elderly religious sister. The sister was waxing lyrical about the performance of Fine Gael in government, and expressing her pride in the wonderful job they were doing. She concluded her litany of praise with an afterthought: ‘pity about the babies’.

I can’t repeat this enough: for most voters, abortion is not a particularly big deal. The referendum showed us that there was no silent majority on our side: but it’s worse than that. There isn’t even a substantial minority who are actually enthusiastic about abortion abolition. Our task isn’t to politically mobilise an army of enthusiastic pro-lifers, because that army doesn’t exist. If we want any future political efforts to be successful, we have to start by trying to convince people that abortion actually is a big deal – because all the evidence suggests that almost no-one thinks that now. We are at very close to rock bottom.

We at the Minimise Project are in it for the long haul, and we are hopeful that through real and meaningful conversations we can begin to change this situation. But the pro-life movement won’t be able to progress until we realise how bad things are.

Ben

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