When the clock strikes midnight tonight, on 22 October 2019, same-sex marriage and abortion will become legal in Northern Ireland for the first time despite a last ditch attempt by the Stormont assembly to stop the changes. Monday’s sitting was the first time the assembly had sat for nearly three years and was triggered by a petition from the Unionist parties yet the bid to halt the reforms failed.
“We are not going to stick with the guilt and shame any longer. Tomorrow the law changes in this place, and for the first time in Northern Ireland, women will be free,” pro-choice campaigner Dawn Purvis told a public meeting in Belfast.
Up until now, Northern Ireland has been the only part of the United Kingdom that does not allow same-sex marriage. Also, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, laws in Northern Ireland forbid abortion except where a mother’s life is at risk, bans that have been upheld by the region’s block of conservative politicians.
The changes are the result of backbench MPs tabling amendments to a routine Commons bill on the governance of Northern Ireland. In July, MPs in Westminster voted by a landslide to compel the government in Westminster to overhaul the laws if Belfast’s devolved executive had not been restored by 21 October which, after the failed attempt earlier, looks unlikely.
Unionist parties, who oppose the upcoming liberalisation, triggered the assembly’s recall with a petition. But politicians were told the assembly could not do any business until a speaker was elected with cross-community backing. That became impossible when the nationalist SDLP left the chamber.
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January 2017 when the power-sharing parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – split after a bitter row. Without an executive in place, Stormont cannot affect the abortion laws and last month, the High Court in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law was in breach of the UK’s human rights commitments.
Public opinion has changed on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and despite most in the region in favour, previous attempts to follow the Irish Republic in legalising it have been blocked by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), using a special veto intended to prevent discrimination towards one community over another.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said it was a “shameful day” and vowed to explore “every possible legal option” to prevent abortion services being introduced in the region.
If a new devolved government is not formed by midnight, abortion will be decriminalised, beginning a consultation on what the framework for services should look like, which is due to be finalised and approved by March 2020.
Campaigners for social choice said the new changes marked “a watershed moment” – bringing Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK and Republic of Ireland. Many gathered in front of Stormont on Monday morning to celebrate the law change, holding large letters reading “decriminalised”.
Sarah Ewart, who was forced to travel to England for an abortion in 2013 after being told there was no way her unborn child would survive, was among the women marking the day.
She told The Independent: “This has been a long time coming. We have been fighting for years for change so that we can have compassionate healthcare at home. Finally, abortion will be treated for what it is – healthcare, a decision between each individual woman and their doctor rather than police and judges.”
Grainne Teggart, campaigns manager for Amnesty International, told The Independent:
“At midnight, history will be made. This is a hugely significant moment and is the beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland – one in which we’re free from oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and healthcare. Finally, our human rights are being brought into the 21st century.”