Why Northern Ireland’s Trade Unions Are Key in the Abortion Rights Struggle

Despite legal changes last year, abortion access in Northern Ireland remains a postcode lottery – and the trade union movement will be a key player in any fight to challenge the conservative status quo.

Members of Alliance for Choice make their way to Stormont on 21 October 2019. Credit: Charles McQuillan / Getty Images

In April 2016, the news broke that a 21-year-old Belfast woman had been given a three-month suspended jail sentence for purchasing pills on the internet in order to self-administer an abortion – the first known abortion pill-related prosecution in Northern Ireland. Days later, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions were holding their biennial conference in Derry. An emergency motion in support of the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland was put forward by Taryn Trainor, Equality Officer for the Irish branch of Unite, seconded by Goretti Horgan, a member of the University and College Union and a seasoned pro-choice campaigner. ‘Nobody spoke against it, but there was such a huge queue of people to speak in favour of it,’ remembers Horgan. The motion was passed unanimously.

Despite a new legal abortion framework for NI abortion services taking effect from 31 March 2020, there are still many similarities between the abortion rights movements of 2016 and 2021. Access to ‘Free, Safe, Legal, Local’ abortion services is still denied to many in Northern Ireland, with Stormont’s refusal to commission nationwide abortion services creating a postcode lottery. Many are still forced to travel to Britain to access services which should legally be available to them at home.

Despite a growing acceptance among NI politicians of the necessity for humane abortion services, the movement is still very much a grassroots one, made up of activists from all corners of civil society. One of the most important of these corners is the trade union movement. ‘In the past number of years the support has been really critical,’ says Naomi Connor, Co-Convenor of Alliance for Choice. ‘Trade unions will organise people, they will come to rallies, they will put out statements and lobby politicians, and be generally supportive financially too. It’s really a sum of all these parts.’

Goretti Horgan, one of the founders of Alliance for Choice, places the starting point of this close relationship around 2008. In response to a Westminster motion to extend the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland, the four main parties (Sinn Féin, SDLP, DUP, and UUP) sent a letter to PM Gordon Brown. It essentially stated that there was no appetite for abortion among the people of Northern Ireland.

In an attempt to highlight that NI politicians do not represent the views of their constituents, Alliance for Choice Derry penned an open letter in response, stating that civil society actually was in favour of a woman’s right to choose, and of the Abortion Act being extended. That letter was signed by the majority of the trade unions in Northern Ireland, and according to Horgan, ‘that was probably the first time that we had a real sense of the union movement, and they have been steady supporters ever since.’

Of course, the ideological links go back even further than this. It is no coincidence that many pro-choice activists are also trade union activists, and vice versa. Horgan remembers that the framing of abortion as a class issue as well as a women’s issue was crucial to winning over trade unionists in the early days of the Irish abortion rights movement. She recalls speaking at trade union conferences in the 1980s and ’90s, when people who were vehemently opposed to abortion nevertheless recognised it as a class issue.

Abortion in Northern Ireland was always accessible, but only to those who could afford it. Middle class women could always get abortions, but working class women couldn’t, because they couldn’t afford to travel to Britain, they couldn’t afford to take time off work, or they didn’t have the resources to find out about those options in the first place. According to Horgan, it was this argument that won people over. ‘That idea that you can be a trade unionist, and you can be against abortion, but still support legal abortion, is something perhaps only people with a sense of class analysis can really understand, and the trade union movement has always been clear about that.’

In recent years, as momentum grew and the abortion rights conversation burst into the mainstream, trade union support became more focussed. In 2017, a groundbreaking survey, ‘Abortion as a Workplace Issue’, was conducted by Ulster University. The first of its kind, it surveyed 3,180 trade union members north and south of the Irish border, focussing on overall views on abortion as well as on abortion as a workplace issue. The results were striking.

‘It confirmed what was already known, that a lot of employers don’t have policies in place to deal with women’s healthcare issues,’ said Danielle McCusker, Regional Lead of UNISON’s NI Women’s Committee. ‘Because these women are in a lot of low paid, precarious work, they may not have good sick pay or leave entitlements.’

The survey found that, of the trade union members surveyed, 85% felt that people should not be criminalised for accessing abortion services, and 61% agreed that the present abortion restrictions were cruel and inhumane. 19% of those surveyed had a direct experience of abortion as a workplace issue. Of these, 43% struggled to pay for the costs associated with travel, and 24% couldn’t afford to take time off.

‘If you’re going to bring something to the membership of a trade union, it has to be relevant to them,’ says Naomi Connor. ‘To us as activists the crossover was obvious, but the relevance isn’t always obvious to all the members.’ From this research, Alliance for Choice were able to put together workshops, which they still deliver to trade union representatives.

In the years following this survey, abortion rights activists have been frustrated by the lack of action to provide accessible services, and the stigma that these delays exacerbate. Three years of Stormont suspension were followed almost immediately by the Covid-19 pandemic, while an increasingly conservative DUP leadership continues to block progress.

Gaps left by the Department of Health are still being filled by non-governmental organisations. Recently, UNISON NI received a call from a member facing a crisis pregnancy. ‘They’re calling their trade union because there’s no one else out there they can go to, apart from Alliance for Choice,’ McCusker stressed. ‘Until Stormont actually commissions services, I don’t know when employers will start to take notice of this as an issue.’

The fight for reproductive justice in Northern Ireland is far from over. While the Secretary of State for NI recently directed that abortion services be commissioned no later than March 2022, there is a legal challenge currently being mounted against this by anti-abortion organisers. Pro-choice activists are quietly confident that this is another battle that they will ultimately win, but even then, trade union support will be as important as ever. According to Naomi Connor, ‘When we get commissioned services, it is hoped that trade unions will take the lead on workplace issues for people who have abortions.’

Community activism has always been the backbone of the Northern Irish abortion rights movement, and until everyone has access to free, safe, legal, local abortion services free from stigma, the fight continues.