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We are finally seeing basic rights extended to Northern Ireland – we must ensure this progress is not lost

3 min read

It is shocking that many basic rights for women and the LGBTQ+ community have not been available to people in Northern Ireland. We must keep campaigning to ensure these long-overdue changes are delivered, despite those who resist, writes Karin Smyth MP.

This year has been a momentous one for human rights in Northern Ireland.

It came as a shock to many that basic rights for women and the LGBTQ+ community were not there for people in Northern Ireland as they were to people in England, Scotland and Wales.  

The Government – rightly so - puts resource into tackling these inequalities in other countries, yet was denying these rights from some of its own citizens.

As a feminist, I firmly believe in furthering women’s rights - in solidarity with women across the world. Women’s reproductive rights are at the core of that internationalism and solidarity. Women die as a result of being denied access to life-saving abortions. This is a key human rights issue. 

Earlier this year, I joined my colleagues Stella Creasy MP and Diana Johnson MP, actors from Derry Girls and some of the women affected by this in London for Amnesty International’s abortion rights demonstration. It was a powerful women-led demo which shone a light on the injustice and helped pave the way for change. 

Another impressive activist-led campaign highlighted the lack of LGBTQ+ rights in Northern Ireland. While gay couples in England, Scotland and Wales have been legally able to marry a same-sex partner since 2014, people in Northern Ireland have not. 

As someone who has benefit from the stability of marriage, I believe that it should be afforded to all couples in committed relationships. With marriage comes certain legal rights and, until now, these were denied to people in Northern Ireland. 

It is thanks entirely to the combined efforts of campaigners and Labour MPs, who seized the opportunity to act, that we are finally seeing these basic rights extended to people in Northern Ireland - bringing them in line with the rest of the UK.  

I was proud to speak from the Front Bench as Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland during the reading of the Northern Ireland Bill, and to act as co-sponsor with Conor McGinn MP on the same-sex marriage amendment. 

As British-born child of Irish immigrants, I have seen first-hand the struggles faced by families living in Northern Ireland. 

In my role as British Vice Chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, I regularly meet with people from the island of Ireland and explore some of the issues they face.

There has been a lot of resistance to the extension of these human rights to Northern Ireland, and that shows little sign of waning. We must continue to work together to ensure that progress is delivered. 

Earlier this year, I attended the funeral of journalist Lyra McKee, who was killed during riots in Derry in April. Lyra was openly gay, and hoping to marry the woman she loved. 

Sitting in the cathedral amid huge sadness, I was struck by the irony that we were rightly praising this remarkable young woman for being a child of the peace process, and for being openly happy with her sexuality, when she would not have been able to marry the woman that she loved where she lived.

What a great testament to her memory to see same-sex marriage made legal in Northern Ireland. 

It’s clear that there is still a lot of work to be done in order to deliver these long-overdue changes. The legislative reforms lay the foundations for this.

It’s now up to us to ensure the building blocks are in place – and not let it get lost in the noise.


Karin Smyth is a Labour MP for Bristol South and Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland. 

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