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Rally for Choice Belfast
Photography Ciara McMullan

Photos of the vibrant Belfast protest for abortion law reform

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in the Northern Irish capital for Rally for Choice, a historic moment captured by photographer Ciara McMullan

Northern Ireland is hurtling towards a new era – if Stormont, the national parliament, does not reform before October 21, the UK government will officially begin the process of liberalising laws around abortion and marriage equality. Given that Stormont has remained a decaying institution on a hill for over two and a half years, it’s likely that this will go through. Decades after the rest of the UK; and over a year behind the Republic of Ireland which repealed the draconian 8th amendment in 2018, it looks like Northern Ireland’s archaic political system will be propelled into modernity. 

On Saturday (September 7), thousands of people took to the streets of Belfast to demand the free, safe, legal, abortion care within reach. The Rally for Choice brought together pro-choice campaigners from across Ireland; the energized and diverse crowd marched through the streets with banners, placards, and purple flares, and culminated in a local square to hear speeches and music.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, a civil rights activist, former politician, and veteran campaigner, told the crowds: “The people who are gathered here today are not asking people with deeply held convictions to make choices against their conscience, we are asking for the right to make choices ourselves.

“And not to have the theology, ideology, or culture of dominance imposed on our thinking and our choices.” 

Back in July, MPs passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation Act), which includes a provision that compels the British government to regulate to provide access to abortion. The current Northern Irish laws surrounding abortion are some of the most restrictive in the world, even in cases of rape or incest. People face up to life imprisonment for accessing abortion, and several cases have passed through the courts in recent years. More than 900 people from Northern Ireland travelled to England for an abortion in 2017, a 25 per cent increase from the year before.

Elaine Crory, an activist who organises with Belfast Feminist Network, Alliance for Choice, and Hollaback Belfast said: “We're delighted to have had such a fantastic turnout and solidarity from the south – the North really is next and we will persist until everyone who needs an abortion can have one." 

Photographer Ciara McMullan documented the day’s protest in a vibrant mix of reportage and portrait photography of demonstrators. Chants rung through the city’s Royal Avenue: “our bodies, our lives, our right to decide”.

“These days itʼs tough to not feel pessimistic, apathetic, or even fearful when you look at whoʼs ‘in chargeʼ. But rallies like this remind you that there’s still hope for a fairer future,” says Fiona McDonnell, who was protesting on the day.

Another demonstrator, Alexa Moore, adds: “The work continues to ensure that any abortion services are trans inclusive and that there are no barriers to accessing these services for trans men and non-binary people who can get pregnant." 

Sam McCann also tells Dazed: “Now more than ever we need to stand together and show parliament that we want to see change to our barbaric laws! We want free, safe, legal, and local access to abortion in the North, it's time to decriminalise and destigmatise.”

Last month, we captured the electrifying celebrations of Belfast’s Pride event, what could potentially be the last Pride before same-sex marriage becomes law in Northern Ireland. 

In what are tempestuous times, these are urgent, hopeful projections for a brighter future that Northern Ireland deserves.