ANALYSIS: Overdue same-sex marriage and abortion reforms raise fresh questions over Stormont

Posted On: 
10th July 2019

Moves to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland are welcome, but raise fresh questions about how the province is governed, argues Andrew McQuillan.

Conor McGinn (3rd from right) with campaigners for equal marriage
PA Images

The resonance and impact of the votes in the House of Commons to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland - on the proviso that devolution has not been restored by October this year - should firstly be considered for their social rather than political resonance.

The end of these particular examples of regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is long overdue; the irony of elements of political unionism proclaiming Ulster is as British as Finchley on the one hand but defending these hurtful and harmful anomalies on the other has not been lost on those who campaigned for change and the Northern Irish population at large. 

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The DUP’s ire at yesterday’s events is not where most will expect it to have landed, however. The fundamentalist wing of the party, the sort angered by the election of the party’s first openly gay councillor in May, are the only ones indulging in Paisleyesque clamour. Those more switched on DUP members with an eye on the future, will deep down be quietly pleased that this particular albatross has been dealt with.

Nigel Dodds, during his response to Conor McGinn, got to the nub of the party’s main contention when he said the amendments could “drive a coach and horses through devolution”.  Selective direct rule, as opposed to the full fat option the DUP have been calling for repeatedly for over the past few months, arguably does as much of a disservice to the people of Northern Ireland as the ongoing impasse at Stormont.

If Westminster can step in to resolve Northern Ireland’s marriage and abortion inequities, then arguably the state of the province’s NHS, with its catastrophic waiting lists and litany of other failings, is worthy of equal attention. Instead, government  by civil servant rather than elected politicians continues to place Northern Ireland in the state of suspended animation it has existed in since power-sharing collapsed over 30 months ago.

The legislation, with its October deadline, also mitigates any substantive chance of the talks process concluding satisfactorily before then. What incentive do Sinn Fein have to engage in a meaningful manner knowing that two of their major demands will be enacted if they sit on their hands until 22 October? Unless the DUP make a major stride on the Irish language, the state of limbo looks set to persist.

Yesterday’s developments raise valid questions about how much leverage the DUP actually has at Westminster, the sort of background noise Dodds et al could do without amid the uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the likely future inhabitant of Number 10's intentions towards the Union in general.

A Boris Johnson administration may be more amenable to direct rule, purely as a sop to their confidence and supply partners, but the prospect of having to staff a fully operational Northern Ireland Office in the run up to Brexit would likely fill his team with justifiable dread.

While yesyerday may have given thousands of people across Northern Ireland cause for celebration and is to be savoured by those who have campaigned for equality, it certainly further complicates the vexatious conundrum that is how Northern Ireland is governed. 

* Andrew McQuillan works in public affairs and writes extensively on Northern Ireland