Armagh, Northern Ireland, Jan 27, 2020 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- A pastor in Northern Ireland barred earlier this month the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin from holding a meeting at a church-owned hall over its support for abortion rights.

The party has historically enjoyed significant Catholic support.

The Irish News reported Jan. 17 that Fr. Eugene O'Neill, parish priest in Coalisland, 15 miles north of Armagh, cancelled a Sinn Féin meeting at St. Patrick's Hall “after being contacted by pro-life campaigners.”

In 2018 party members endorsed the repeal of the Eighth Amendment in the Republic of Ireland, which protected unborn children. The party has endorsed legalized abortion in cases of rape, fetal abnormality, and where a woman’s mental or physical health faces serious threat, and it supported the liberalization of abortion laws in Northern Ireland imposed by the British parliament.

The party also demanded the recognition of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland in 2017.

According to The Irish News, Fr. O'Neill wrote to pro-lifers saying that he had not been involved in the hall's booking by Sinn Féin, but that he contacted the party “to cancel it immediately” once he learned of it.

“In light of their recent behaviour regarding the abortion debate and due to their long-running policy on pro-life matters I would not entertain the use of church property for any such meeting,” he stated.

The priest was lauded by pro-lifers for his decision.

Bernadette Smyth, spokeswoman for Precious Life, said that “Fr. Eugene O'Neill has stood up for the faithful and strongly reaffirmed church teaching. He has informed us he was not aware of this meeting, but that he contacted Sinn Fein, who have a radical pro-abortion position, to cancel this meeting as soon as people responded to our action alert.”

“Fr Eugene must be commended for taking a strong stand for life, and standing up against Sinn Féin's radical and cruel abortion agenda,” she told The Catholic Universe.

Francie Brolly, a former Sinn Féin politician who resigned the party in 2018 for its abortion support, said Fr. O'Neill had “led the way” by his decision.

According to Mid-Ulster Mail, he said that “all the churches should be more vocal in supporting the right of the unborn to live.”

Brolly added that he anticipates that Catholics in Northern Ireland will “go against their religious beliefs to vote for Sinn Fein for various other reasons… fundamentally to keep the [Democratic Unionist Party] down.”

Catherine Sewell, spokeswoman for Tyrone Pro-Life Network, said: “No pro-abortion outfit should be allowed to use Catholic Church property. We determined to stop them and immediately began a mobilisation of activists.”

Sinn Féin's abortion policy has allowed for some political realignments among Catholics in Ireland.

Michael Kelly, editor of The Irish Catholic, told CNA in 2018 that pro-life voters “have been left unrepresented by the mainstream political establishment” and that “Ireland is crying out for a new political movement.”

Kelly noted that “many pro-life voters remain reluctant voters for their traditional political party,” but that “there is some evidence that this is changing and that people are willing to set aside old tribal loyalties.”

In the Republic of Ireland, the legislator Carol Nolan resigned from Sinn Féin in June 2018 over the party's abortion policy. She had earlier been suspended from the party for voting against a bill allowing a referendum to be held on repealing the Eighth Amendment. She now sits as an independent in Dáil Éireann.

Peadar Tóibín, another deputy to the Dáil, was twice suspended from Sinn Féin for breaking with the party's platform on legalized abortion. He resigned the party in 2018, and launched Aontú as a pro-life, nationalist party last year. He is Aontú's sole member in the Dáil.

“Aontú want to make sure that there is a real voice and a real alternative for many people who feel that they have no-one to vote for,” Tóibín said at the party's launch. “We are simply saying that this is a core value for ourselves, and we won't let you down on this issue.”

Aontú members are standing for 26 constituencies in the 2020 Irish general election, being held Feb 8. The party contested seven of the 18 Northern Irelands seats in last year's UK general election, but won none.

In October 2019, ahead of the 2019 UK general election, a parish priest in Northern Ireland exhorted pro-choice politicians not to receive Holy Communion, and Catholic voters not to vote for pro-choice candidates or parties.

Legislation expanding abortion access in Northern Ireland had taken effect shortly before because the Northern Ireland Assembly, which had been suspended the prior two years due to a dispute between the two major governing parties, was not able to do business by Oct. 21.

Pro-life members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, largely comprised of members of the DUP, recalled the assembly in order to block the relaxed abortion restrictions, but members of the assembly from Sinn Fein, the Green Party, and People Before Profit did not participate.

“For Catholics and nationalists/republicans, in particular, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have betrayed us in a most hideous fashion,” Fr. Patrick McCafferty, parish priest at Corpus Christi in Belfast, wrote on Facebook Oct. 21, noting that “Sinn Féin is avowedly pro abortion.”

“The collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, due to the RHI Scandal, has left the door wide open for a phalanx of determined and fanatical pro abortion MPs in Westminster, led by Stella Creasy – unelected by the people of Northern Ireland – but aided and abetted by pro abortion-choice politicians in Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, PBP and the Green Party – to railroad through, at Midnight last night, one of the most extreme abortion regimes in the world,” the priest lamented.

The DUP have emerged as a leading pro-life party in Northern Ireland. However, the unionist party has had links to a the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, an ecclesial community particularly hostile to the Catholic Church; the community's website lauds the leaders of the Protestant reformation for “their militant witness against the antichristian system of the Papacy.”

Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, wrote in September 2019 that the party's “position on abortion remains resolute and unchanged since the Party’s inception. We are a pro-life party and will continue to support the rights of both the mother and the unborn child.”

She noted that “the DUP is the only pro-life party in the [Northern Ireland] Assembly”, besides Jim Allister, the Traditional Unionist Voice's sole member of the legislative body.