With media interest and an increased emphasis on professional presentation, party conferences are still the one opportunity for members to shape and change policy. So amidst fine speeches it’s inevitable that some internal dirty laundry will get aired.
Proposing the motion in an emotional speech that at times sounded more like a passionate preacher, Brian Ervine proposed that “the present policy to agitate for the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act into Northern Ireland is spiritually, morally and politically harmful to the PUP.” (Brian is brother of the late David Ervine, previous leader of the PUP.)
“I went along with the semantic nonsense for a while … but to be pro-choice is to be pro-abortion.”
Ervine sensed a hypocrisy that you can’t smack your child but can abort a foetus. He proposed alternatives of “good old fashioned chastity ... contraception ... have the child and love it ... have the child and have it adopted”.
“People are going to the third world to adopt them, and we are aborting them.”
He stated that allowing social and non-medical abortion in Northern Ireland would increase the number of abortions taking place. And he felt that the continued pro-choice policy was putting people off the PUP.
Nietzsche and his “God is dead” got a mention in Erwin Higgins seconder’s speech.
“If you’re a believer - even if you’re a believer like me who likes a wee drink and a smoke - you have to support this motion.”
If you were not a believer, Higgins reckoned it was “an opportunity to stick two fingers up at Diane Abbott” who had previously tried to interfere in local affairs and introduce the legislation into Northern Ireland from Westminster. He concluded:
“Do it for God and Ulster.”
During the debate that followed, speakers pointed to the current legislation - the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act - that was before the invention of the light bulb. Some rejected the religious fundamentalism language and pointed out the PUP wasn’t a Christian Socialist party, Others felt the motion was “a direct attack on Dawn’s leadership”. And it was equated to discrimination on geography and income (ability to fund travel to England).
After five male speakers, the last contribution came from a woman, Dawn Purvis - leader of the PUP. She noted it was a party policy before she joined. She saw the PUP as a party that “faced hard issues head on”. Fence sitting was for the Alliance party.
When it came to the vote, the motion to remove the party policy was overwhelmingly rejected. UTV turned up too late to catch the abortion debate. As Dawn Purvis commented afterwards:
“Therefore we continue to campaign for abortion rights for women in NI.”