A Diverted Vehicle for Change: the Northern Ireland Executive Bill

Posted On: 
19th July 2019

It is possible that a once non-contentious Bill could be enough to reinstate Stormont, writes Sophie Rose Feary.

Stormont Assembly
Credit: 
PA Images

A Bill to Reinstate Stormont

The Government is currently trying to fast-track the Northern Ireland Executive Bill through Parliament, to have it reach Royal Assent before the House rises for recess. It is possible that this once non-contentious Bill could be enough to reinstate Stormont.

Northern Ireland Executive Bill

The Bill’s original aim was to extend the period for forming an Executive in Northern Ireland - an uncontentious issue that would have seen the Bill easily pass through both Houses. However, new clause’s have been added by MPs.

Labour MP Stella Creasy tabled one on abortion, and fellow Labour MP Conor McGinn one on same sex marriage. This sees the Bill stray from its original intentions, and delves into complex topics that have divided Northern Ireland.

The issue of abortion had once again raised its head in the press and social media due to new restrictive abortion laws in Georgia, USA. Whilst never muted, the coverage this received re-ignited the fire under those that have long called for Westminster to over-rule Stormont’s current stance on abortion rights and bring them into line with the rest of the UK.

A poll conducted by Amnesty International shows that 65% of adults in Northern Ireland agree that abortion should not be a crime, with the number rising to a massive 81% in the rest of the UK. However, a poll conducted by ComRes found that 64% of people in Northern Ireland agreed that changing the law on abortion should be a matter for Northern politicians and not Westminster.

The new clauses passed the House of Commons with a landslide, and the House of Lords have confirmed that they will not remove these amendments - simply make them workable. 

Criticism of the amendments is rife amongst members from both Houses. Baroness O’Loan even criticised members for “hijacking” the Bill and disrespecting devolution.

Nevertheless, the Bill can still address a longstanding issue in Northern Ireland which has no consensus in Stormont. 

It will be Parliament not Stormont

Prior to Stormont collapsing in January 2017, Assembly members voted on a proposal to legalise abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA). The motion was defeated by 59 to 40 and an amendment allowing for abortion in cases of rape was also defeated by 64 to 30.

Apart from DUP and TUV, which remain “pro-life”, NI parties tend to avoid placing a party whip on the issue. Sinn Féin recently changed its party policy to approval of abortion. With such a lack of consensus, it is hard to see a future where abortion laws will be changed without the influence of Westminster.

For those seeking new leadership on the issue, it was made clear at the recent Conservative Husting’s in Northern Ireland that neither Johnson nor Hunt will intervene in the matter. This is likely to remain any Conservative leaders’ stance whilst they hold a slim majority in the House.

The Bill has the Power to Influence Negotiations in Stormont

The urgency that the Bill has placed on the current talks between DUP and Sinn Féin is unprecedented. The message is clear to DUP, who will be relying on an agreement with Sinn Féin before 21st October to advert the implementation of the Bill.

In order to finalise the talks between Sinn Féin, the DUP would need to

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