“May I say just one more thing Prime Minister; if you must do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way.”
So spoke the fictional, and now almost legendary civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby in perhaps his bluntest ever advice in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister. It’s a warning which has been coming to mind a lot recently, and it could have been made specifically about the disastrous decision to take the UK out of the European Union, and the damn silly way in which it’s being done.
The UK Government took a wafer thin UK-wide majority to Leave, and ignored the fact that two of the four nations had voted Remain. They gave top jobs requiring nuance and skill to arch-Brexiteers with the judgement and diplomatic talents of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. And they gave no priority to the needs of the economy and public services, more intent on placating UKIP voters and the frenzied cheerleaders of the far right press.
Then, as if looking for new ways to make the situation even more chaotic, they called a snap election, threw away their majority, and now find themselves cutting a deal with the extremists of the DUP. This not only hands influence to a party that’s yet to be dragged into the 1970s when it comes to social policy; it risks further destabilising the devolution settlement and ending the ability of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to act as an honest broker between the parties.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s hilarious that Theresa May no longer has a majority at Westminster. Even with Arlene Foster’s help she will only just get over the line. The Tory party and the austerity agenda are weakened, and that can only be a good thing in itself. But regardless, this is an absurd way to go about the Brexit process – the most complex international negotiation the UK has been involved in for a generation or more, and the biggest job of legislative heavy lifting in modern history.
As I write we can only guess the price of the deal that’s being cooked up behind closed doors. If we’re lucky, the DUP might still find it difficult to roll back equality laws in the rest of the UK. That alone isn’t enough. We should be unwilling to ignore the situation in Northern Ireland itself, where women’s reproductive rights are denied, same sex couples are given second class status in law, and a bizarre collection of climate deniers, creationists and sectarian marchers are in public office.
We should not be afraid to offer help to those who need it, in the face of such repressive government. Two examples of this came up this week.
Former SNP minister Marco Biagi made it clear that Arlene Foster (then the Finance Minister rather than First Minister of Northern Ireland) had written to the Scottish Government seeking assurances that same sex couples from Northern Ireland would not be welcome to travel to Scotland to have their civil partnership legally re-registered as a marriage. England and Wales don’t permit this – but the Scottish Government was absolutely right to insist that the doors of the registry office here are open, including to those from Northern Ireland whose equality is denied by their own devolved government. My Green colleagues Clare Bailey MLA and John Finnie MSP have both called this week for Ms Foster’s letter to be made public, and I can see no reason why this shouldn’t happen immediately.
The second example is also about people from Northern Ireland having to travel to access what should be their rights, in this case control over their own bodies. Abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances in NI, and many women travel to England to access private provision, at a very high personal and financial cost. The Supreme Court this week ruled, by a narrow majority, that the English NHS is under no obligation to provide free access.
Critically, it only means the obligation doesn’t exist – it does not forbid the NHS from offering abortion on the same basis as any other aspect of health care. This should be the Scottish NHS stance. There’s not much private provision in Scotland, so the issue has mostly been tested in the English courts so far. But why wait? We should ensure that women forced to travel from Northern Ireland are not charged but can access the Scottish NHS freely, like anyone else who needs to.
The DUP’s influence on the UK Government, and on the country, will no doubt be malign. But it must not stop us from pushing at the boundaries of equality and human rights at every opportunity. That’s the only way we’ve made the progress we have, toward being a modern and inclusive society.
This article first appeared in The National.