An aerial view of The Houses of Parliament in London. CNS photo/Kieran Doherty, Reuters

Peter Stockland: Abortion battle cloaked in defeat

  • July 24, 2019

Belfast, Northern Ireland -- In the mid-19th century, St. Malachy’s Church on Alfred Street added to its existing structure the largest bell in a city full of Catholic churches and Protestant houses of worship.

Alas, the bell was so loud that a nearby distillery demanded its removal because its vibrations were said to be interfering with the whiskey-making process. 

St. Malachy’s quite generously — and with quintessential Irish practicality — complied. A plaque outside the church marking the silencing makes no mention of what became of the bell, or whether it was ever heard from again.

Sitting in Mass at the church during a month-long stay in Belfast, however, I had little doubt that the parish priest, Fr. Michael McGinnity, would have rung it furiously if possible to arouse local Catholics to the truly perfidious behaviour of the UK government in seeking to force abortion and gay marriage on the highly opposed majority of citizens in Northern Ireland. 

As it was, McGinnity’s recent homily was, in its own right, a forceful call to action to stop the enabling legislation being pushed through the Westminster Parliament. Intriguingly, and also pragmatically, he did not appeal directly to Church teachings on abortion and gay marriage, but rather focused on the astonishingly undemocratic nature of the bill. 

“Whatever your views are on the issues, we must take action to stop (the legislation),” he told parishioners.

He was far from alone. Catholic parishes across the city circulated a letter from Anglican Archbishop Lord Robin Eames and Baroness Nuala O’Loan seeking “thousands of signatures” to present to then Prime Minister Theresa May. 

“Regardless of what one thinks about abortion…the manner in which there has been an attempt to change abortion law in Northern Ireland…treats the people of Northern Ireland with contempt,” the letter said. “It has the capacity to undermine the delicate political calibration between Northern Ireland and Westminster and to cause significant damage to attempts to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly,” it added.

The “delicate political calibration” referred to is a complex mix of jurisdictional jockeying and ideological elbowing arising from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the 2006 St. Andrews Agreement that sought to end the 30-year civil war known as The Troubles. In fact, it dates even further back to the 1921 partition of Ireland by the British parliament. 

The capsule summary is that while the Republic of Ireland has been a wholly sovereign country since 1949, Northern Ireland remains part of the UK with “devolved” powers that allow it control over, among other things, social issues such as abortion, gay marriage, etc. But the Northern Ireland legislative assembly hasn’t met since early in 2017 because of a breakdown in trust between the two leading parties. A bill attempting to get the Assembly working again by October was used by some MPs in Westminster to smuggle in, through amendments, full legalization of abortion and gay marriage. 

Unfortunately, attempts to raise resistance amounted to the sound of silence. The amendments will almost certainly become law unless legislators put aside their differences and get back to work to stop them before October. 

Beyond the issues themselves, what comes through loudest is the signal of how weak the Church herself has become. Matters once deemed the proper province of the Church are now pushed forward without a tinkling bell of concern about how she will react. Efforts to rouse the faithful, laudable as they might be, are marked by the hollowness of predestined failure.

Some will say that after centuries of sectarian conflict, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But those of us who believe it is right, good and indeed imperative for the Catholic Church to speak with authority will see only a terrible loss. We will hear it as a harbinger of bad vibrations inevitably, inexorably growing even worse.

(Stockland is publisher of and a senior fellow with Cardus.)

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