MPs back to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland

By Tabatha Baylis

Since the collapse at Stormont, the last week will likely be remembered as transformative for Northern Ireland and Westminster. In a move that the socially conservative DUP has branded as a ‘breach of devolution,’ Parliament has pushed through an amendment set to legalise same sex marriage and liberalise abortion.

This is uncommon territory for Stormont and Westminster alike. Devolved issues do not usually make it to the House of Commons for debate, let alone acquire such an overwhelmingly positive backing from MPs during votes. Despite being high in numbers, the votes do not automatically change the law. However they would compel the government to make the changes, provided that Stormont is not restored by the 21st of October.

This is uncommon territory for Stormont and Westminster alike.

Unsurprisingly, the DUP voted against both amendments, whilst the Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, and Prime Minister both abstained from voting. The independent unionist Lady Hermon, representing the North Down constituency, along with Northern Ireland Office Minister John Penrose, backed the samesex marriage amendment. The amendments have been tacked onto the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, a bill whose main purpose is to keep public services running and delay another assembly election.

These recent events are both a welcome triumph for samesex marriage campaigners and another stride on Westminster’s behalf to implement direct rule in Northern Ireland, a cause for concern when it comes to current peace talks at Stormont. The last week has certainly laid the foundations for Westminster possibly governing other issues for Northern Ireland in the absence of Stormont. This would lead some to ask whether there is a point in having a devolved government when Westminster can simply legislate on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.

After decades of protests and campaigning, many will welcome the changes that are waiting in the wings. Despite this, it is important to remember that, however progressive these changes are, they are further proof that Stormont is becoming more irrelevant than ever in its absence.

However progressive these changes are, they are further proof that Stormont is becoming more irrelevant than ever in its absence.

What’s next for Northern Ireland?

It is unlikely that talks at Stormont will lead to a breakthrough and restore devolution before the end of October, especially given there is such a significant law waiting to be implemented. If the Northern Ireland Assembly has not been restored by 21 October, the government must bring regulations to Parliament to amend the law in Northern Ireland.

Nikki Da Costa, Number 10’s former legislative affairs director, has reportedly advised that MPs could ask for a resolution to overturn the amendment, however due to the majority being in favour this seems unlikely to happen.

Northern Ireland Office Minister John Penrose has also advised that even if Stormont is not restored by the deadline, time constraints mean they may be unlikely to be able to implement the law change right away.

Amidst the controversy, there are calls for MPs to push through other previously hindered laws for Northern Ireland. It is unlikely that the upcoming issue of abortion in Northern Ireland will be as clear cut as same sex marriage – a letter by Baroness Nuala O’Loan and Church of Ireland Archbishop Lord Eames was handed out at Catholic church servies, describing the move as treating the people of Northern Ireland with ‘contempt’. Such wording reflects a growing friction between the effort to bring Northern Irish laws in line with Britain’s and the country’s attempt to hold onto their governmental autonomy.

Image by Tim Dennell via Creative Commons

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