FACING up to anti-choice protesters has been part of Clare Bailey’s life for well over three decades.

In the 1980s, she watched them gather in hordes outside the offices of the Family Planning Association in Belfast when she was living in the city.

When she came back to the Northern Irish capital in the 1990s after spending some years in London, she saw them swarm the Brook Advisory sexual health centre from her workplace nearby.

Angered by their behaviour, she made a point of going into the centre on her lunch break just so she could walk through their demonstrations.

“They’d then ask me at the desk if they could help me with anything, and I politely just had to say no and leave,” said Bailey.

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When Belfast’s first private abortion clinic Marie Stopes opened in 2012 – when termination was only legal in very exceptional circumstances in Northern Ireland – Bailey became a client escort for women accessing the service. She was assaulted, splashed with “holy water” and spat on, and she watched one client run straight into oncoming traffic simply to get away from the intimidation.

Bailey told the Sunday National: “It was never protesting as I understood it. It was a deliberate campaign of harassment being allowed to happen to women.

“Every client who was booking an appointment was offered an escort in and out. Nobody requested one coming in. I would say 95% requested one going out.”

After discovering police could do little about the behaviours of the protesters, it was not something Bailey was prepared to let go of and when she became a Member of the Legislative Assembly in 2016, she began to use her platform to make sure things changed.

Fast forward six years – which included three years of Northern Ireland having no executive – and Bailey’s Abortion (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill is on the verge of becoming law.

The bill will make it an offence to protest against abortion within the immediate vicinity of a clinic where terminations are carried out.

A so-called safe access or “buffer” zone would be implemented to ensure those seeking a termination can do so in peace.

The legislation was passed in Stormont in March but was delayed from becoming law after the NI attorney general Brenda King intervened to ask Supreme Court judges whether part of it disproportionately interfered with protesters’ rights and whether it was within the legislative competence of the assembly.

After the hearing in July – which came shortly after Bailey lost her seat in the 2022 election – a nerve-wracking few months followed until the court delivered a unanimous judgement last week to say the bill did not impact on the right to freedom of expression and the assembly had the power to implement it.

Bailey said: “I felt relief more than anything else. This has been a long time coming, it’s been a lot of hard work and trauma that led to it, so it’s emotional and it’s a huge relief. I’m just trying to let it sink in in terms of how much things will change in the future in Northern Ireland.

“My intention was never to be vindictive and draconian with it [the bill]. I wanted to provide a solution so how it was constructed was all thought through and I spent a lot of time on it.”

Lord Reed said the bill had a “legitimate aim” and while it restricted protesters’ rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, the restrictions could be justified.

The National: ‘Just power through this, Gillian, and
get it done’

Bailey (above) added: “I wasn’t expecting the ruling, I thought it would be struck down. It’s just phenomenal.

“I did this as a backbencher, I wasn’t in the government, so I didn’t have all those resources to try and run through how you get a good balance on this. I’m so glad I was able to create that balance of competing rights. I’m absolutely thrilled.”

THE bill forms part of a change in the tide in Northern Ireland. Three years ago, abortion was decriminalised in the country and now it has become the first nation in the UK to enact safe access zones legislation.

This month, the UK Government also formally commissioned abortion services in Northern Ireland so a full range will be available by April 2023. Currently, health trusts can only offer abortions if there is a threat to life, to prevent severe injury, or if the woman is fewer than 10 weeks pregnant.

The Supreme Court ruling is not only significant to Northern Ireland but also to Scotland, where Green MSP Gillian Mackay has begun the process of legislating for safe access zones.

Bailey has said her advice to Mackay is simply to “power through” now she has set the agenda.

She said: “You’ve got the ruling. This is the highest court in the land and it has made this judgement that it is fine to balance these competing rights. This is not about stopping the right to protest, this is all about safe access to healthcare.

“Without that judgement what I would be expecting is this bill, while it was passed [in Stormont], would’ve gone into this quagmire of litigation processes, and challenged and challenged again.

“But the Supreme Court has given this ruling, we know what the framework is. So Gillian, just power through and get it done.”

Mackay – whose bill consultation attracted 12,000 responses – said she hopes to present a final proposal for Scotland in the first half of the new year which will then face scrutiny from parliament.

She said she was “over the moon” to see Bailey’s legislation pass safely through the court after a nail-biting wait.

“I’d be surprised if the general population of central Scotland didn’t hear the cheering from the Green corridor [of Holyrood] when that ruling was read out,” said Mackay.

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“I’m so over the moon with how completely unequivocal it was and how much it upholds that right to access healthcare and to do that without intimidation.

“It allows us to get on with the rest of the consultation process we need to get on with now and then come back with a very clear way forward.

“We’re working our socks off and we’re hoping to bring forward a final proposal in the first half of the new year.

“I don’t think we should ever underestimate the Herculean effort of Clare Bailey and all the campaigners and the staff team behind her.”

“I think it’s one of those rare good news stories that has far-reaching implications beyond the piece of legislation the judgment was on and beyond the nation the bill was passed in.”