Equal Marriage and Abortion Rights in Northern Ireland

Alastair Osborne looks back at the process which eventually delivered key equality laws in Northern Ireland, and questions the reasons some gave for abstaining on the vote.

It was the first time I had viewed the Northern Ireland Assembly TV site. I couldn’t resist watching the DUP’s 11th-hour attempt to block Abortion Rights reform collapse into farce.

Talks to restore Stormont after the murder of journalist Lyra McKee had come to nothing. Even outrage over the new Brexit deal failed to bring the MLAs back to the Assembly. Yet suddenly, as the October 21 deadline to implement abortion decriminalisation loomed, the DUP found the will and the numbers to recall a sitting of the Assembly in an attempt to stop the change.

Northern Ireland has retained a Victorian-era ban on same sex marriage and a near-blanket ban on abortion due to the power of the DUP and other religious and social conservatives. However this was not even a serious attempt to stop the liberalisation. With Sinn Fein, Alliance and Greens boycotting the sitting and the SDLP refusing to support the DUP’s ‘stunt’ there was never any chance of the Assembly reaching the point of even being able to discuss the issue. The Speaker eventually adjourned the session after the MLAs had walked out leaving an empty chamber, and equality campaigners celebrated as the clock ticked towards midnight when laws extending abortion and marriage rights came into force.

We shouldn’t lose sight of how these momentous changes have come about. It had not been the UK Government’s intention to include social reforms as part of a purely technical Northern Ireland Bill, but when the Speaker allowed amendments in the names of Labour MPs Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy it became clear that this was an opportunity to break the logjam over these important equality issues and extend human rights to all Northern Ireland citizens in ways already in place for the rest of the UK.

The amendments were sensitively crafted to respect the devolution settlement and allowed for the Assembly to resume control over both issues should a power sharing Executive be in place again by the end of October. If these changes were made and the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive subsequently restored, it would be very unlikely the changes would ever be repealed as they had majority support among the people of Northern Ireland.

If the Stormont farce highlighted the reactionary views of the DUP, the earlier debate and vote on the Westminster amendments raised another issue – the conflict for the SNP between prioritising progressive change or nationalist dogma.

It was depressingly predictable when the SNP’s Northern Ireland spokesperson at Westminster, Gavin Newlands, announced ahead of the votes that the SNP would abstain as they did not vote on devolved matters. But the SNP group had not anticipated the backlash that would come their way from equality organisations and individuals. It just wasn’t true that they never voted on devolved matters. When it suited them they would identify some knock-on effect for Scotland that allowed them to vote. And in the case of the proposed vote to relax the fox hunting ban in England and Wales, the SNP had boasted of forcing a government climb down after they threatened to vote against it.

Of course, the real dilemma here for SNP MPs was the age old conflict of support for progressive change up against constitutional politics, and the question of which would take precedence. In the scope of a matter of hours we had Ian Blackford, Joanna Cherry, Tommy Shepherd and Hannah Bardell breaking ranks and declaring they would support the amendments. Nicola Sturgeon also backed this position and the group were given a free vote. I think this was the right decision and I welcomed the fact that they had responded to pressure and admitted their first position had been misguided. As it happened, the SNP group split down the middle, both amendments were overwhelmingly passed and, on this occasion, the votes of SNP MPs were irrelevant.

I had always regarded my own MP, Philippa Whitford (from Belfast herself), as one of the more thoughtful of the SNP group. I wanted to know why she had abstained on both amendments. I understand how Westminster politics works and was half expecting her to explain that she had thought the party line was to abstain and had not made arrangements to travel down that Monday in time for the vote. As there is no way to record an abstention at Westminster that could have been the explanation. No such luck.

When I wrote to her she replied “My decision to abstain does not relate to my support for human rights but to my belief that devolved policy should be made by the people of that country and their elected representatives. There is no doubt that equal marriage and abortion are extremely important but they are devolved to Northern Ireland, as they are to Scotland, and I do not wish to see the devolved settlement unpicked.”

I wrote back: “I do not share your priorities that issues relating to devolution should take precedence over the opportunity to further equality issues in Northern Ireland. I share your desire to see the power sharing executive restored in NI but these amendments do not impede that happening and as you know they provided for the Assembly to continue to have full control over both equal marriage and abortion rights once it is restored. Many of your colleagues came to see that and voted for the amendments. I do not understand how you came to take a different view.”

Far from denying NI people their democratic rights, it has been NI unionist politicians who have blocked the wishes of the NI citizens on these matters. All the evidence points to majority support for these changes as well as the support of NI sections of organisations like Marie Stopes, Amnesty International, Love Equality, TIE (Time for Inclusive Education) and the Alliance, Sinn Féin and even within the mainly Catholic SDLP political parties.

I fully support Scottish devolution, although I personally believe abortion rights should have remained a reserved issue. However, there is no comparison between the Scottish and Northern Irish devolution situation. In Scotland the Scottish Government is fully operational and both responsible and accountable for all devolved matters. This has not been the case in Northern Ireland for a very long time. We should be able to use constitutional means to further the human rights of their citizens until such time as the political parties agree to take on the responsibilities of devolution again.

Scottish Nationalists remain torn between pursuing progressive social change and obsessing with constitutional niceties. Nye Bevan famously said ‘The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism’. The SNP are not very fluent in that language.

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16 thoughts on “Equal Marriage and Abortion Rights in Northern Ireland

  1. You miss a real point here. While the SNP may fully support progressive change in other countries, they know that voting on devolved matters that don’t affect Scotland is a hostage to fortune. What argument could they have in future if MPs from elsewhere in the the UK forced change on Scotland in a devolved area against our wishes? It is bad enough when things are imposed on us on reserved areas but the danger is that the Tories would like to undermine the devolution settlement and we must be careful to not give them any excuse. This is not obsessing about about the constitution but a recognition that for as long as Scotland remains part of the UK we run the risk of governments we don’t elect imposing things on our country, and seeking to protect ourselves from this as best we can.

    1. I think that point was covered quite clearly in the piece. The SNP voted on England and Wales only fox hunting legislation. They no longer have such an argument.

        1. And LGBT rights are attacked in Scotland by the same people who attack them in Northern Ireland.

      1. What about the foxes that are born and live in Scotland right next to the border with England and whilst out and about cross the border into England and are then hunted in England they needed protection so the SNP were morally right to vote on England and Wales fox hunting to protect Scottish, English and Welsh Foxes.

        1. I’m afraid you have misunderstood what the SNP did, Ted.

          Fox hunting with dogs is illegal across Britain. Hunts in England and Wales are able to flush out foxes for pest control purposes, but they can only use two dogs to do so. In Scotland an unlimited number of dogs can be used for this purpose. What the SNP chose to oppose in 2015 was a proposal to relax the law on the use of dogs in England and Wales so that it is the same as it already is in Scotland. In other words, foxes were already better protected on the English side of the border than the Scottish side, and the SNP chose to maintain that difference.

          As a corollary, it’s worth noting that it took until this year for the SNP to bring forward proposals to change the law in Scotland to bring it more in line with the law it defended in England and Wales, and they are consulting on still allowing some hunts to be licensed to use more than two dogs. So it’s likely that even if they complete this reform five years later, foxes will still be safer on the English side of the border than on the Scottish side.

          I hope this clarifies things for you.

          1. Thanks for the info Duncan l support Scottish Independence but it’s the wee anomalies like this that are so annoying about the SNP they need to get a grip.

  2. “Scottish Nationalists remain torn between pursuing progressive social change and obsessing with constitutional niceties. Nye Bevan famously said ‘The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism’. The SNP are not very fluent in that language.”

    The SNP prioritise Scotland over the rUK because they are a Scotland only party Labour dont because they are not a Scottish political party. Tell me why that makes Labour a better choice in Scotland?

  3. I somehow knew the SNP would be cast as the bad guys here. Even when it’s another country’s issue their opponents find some way to make it an SNPbad story. 《Sighs》

    1. The problem was not SNPBad but SNPConfused. Either they vote on principled matters not affecting Scotland or they don’t. In this case, some did and some didn’t. I, personally, would wish that they did, but understand the view that they should only vote on matters that affect Scotland

      1. Jim,
        What ever the problem is, it is now going to be put the the people.
        Fancy a bet?
        Lets keep it in Scotlandshire.
        Here is the 2017 result.
        35 SNP
        13 Tory
        7 Labour
        4 Libdems
        Your the expert on SNP failings. On your reckoning how many seats will they loose?
        Unlike you I am no expert. But Im going to make a prediction on Scottish Labour MPs returned to Westminster in December. One.
        Lets not make this exclusive, Alistair Osborne and Robert Hoskins, the other experts on the SNP are welcome to make their predictions.
        Dont you just love a general election? I know I do.

      2. Its not the SNP who are confused regarding what is and what isn’t Scotland only matters its the Westminster divide on what is and what isn’t Devolved and the knock on effects of Reserved issued impacting onto Devolved areas of responsibility. There are no clear cut borders or lines of distinction in many areas and cases. What we have here is a clear case of no one size fits all when it comes to the UK. Another reason why it shouldn’t exist at all.

  4. Hello Alistair – a nicely written article but I find it depressing that you use this issue as a way to attack the SNP, it shows the same stuck-in-the-mud mind-set of the Labour party in Scotland that will keep the party falling in the polls. I despair. I am starting to lose all hope that the party can get out of this SNP hate mentality and deal with the real issues that surround us and that the people of Scotland and yes the UK as a whole have to meet on a day-to-day basis.

    There are three things in this article: 1 the issue of abortion, 2 the issue of devolution, 3 UK parliament.

    Lets look at each of these in turn.

    The legislation allows abortion to be available for up to 28 weeks whereas In England, Wales and Scotland abortion is legal up until 24 weeks. Those opposed to abortion in NI feel aggrieved that this imposes upon them one of the most liberal/extreme abortion laws in Europe where it is mostly available for between 12 to 14 weeks see below:


    Note: even the NHS says “babies are considered “viable” at 24 weeks of pregnancy – this means it’s possible for them to survive being born at this stage.” and records show that some under 22 weeks have survived into ‘normal’ life. My own child survived from 29 weeks.

    Baroness O’Loan, spoke of how out-of-step the 28-week limit imposed by this law is with increasing survival rates of premature babies:
    “The most recent medical information which I have been able to find tells me that babies born at about 22 weeks of gestation had a 50% survival rate in 2008. Medical science has advanced considerably since then, so that even smaller babies are surviving…It is not the law here, where abortion is available only up to 24 weeks. We know that about 30 babies a year aborted in that situation are born alive—presumably because some doctor failed to make sure that it did not happen—and they are left to die. I am not sure that Northern Ireland wants that situation, even for a matter of months.”

    Her concern was echoed by Baroness Browning:
    “I am not against abortion, although I would certainly like to see the upper limit for abortion come down. I agree—I have seen 22 week-old infants in prem baby units survive, and it is time for an adjustment The thought of 28 weeks fills me with horror.”

    So, on a biological level there must surely be some pause for thought? Surely? How does that feel to those in Northern Ireland?

    Here I will pause my argument for as you are aware the law seems to have limitations on it with regard to the 28 week limit but it is unclear how this will evolve by March 2020 the date set by the government.

    Devolution. You make light of the SNP’s position on voting on issues on devolution and indeed their subsequent lack of unity on this and as Duncan points out their position on fox-hunting in England marks a major inconsistency in their behaviour BUT this farcical situation within the ranks of the SNP does not actually undermine the principle of the respect for devolved issues. The fact that they (the SNP) did not as a bloc and live up to that principle does not devalue it.

    The fact is that the UK government did “intend to include social reforms as part of a … Northern Ireland Bill” – amendments do in fact constitute part of a bill. It was not accidentally imposed. No one went “aw naw look whut we’ve done” after the fact. And a bill that it is imposed on any area that should be devolved no matter why the relevant institution is suspended is indeed undemocratic. It is undeniably so. The relevant democratic representatives elected by the people did not scrutinise the bill. I accept that at face value it seems the majority of NI parliamentarians support this but they did not pass it. Process, process, process. You might as well say that as polls indicate the majority of the people of England support the Conservative party by far over Labour, why bother with an election? Eh, because we live in a democracy perhaps? Just like the NI Assembly is perhaps?

    There are no short cuts in democracy, it either is democratic or it isn’t.

    UK Parliament.
    You see the issue of abortion through two lenses – political and human rights. You think that NI has Victorian-era ban on abortion but that is not the case. It makes a snappy line but it is not an accurate portrayal of the situation in Northern Ireland. Religion and politics have some close connections there. Even the make up of the assembly with its power-sharing recognises the unionist – republican/protestant – catholic dynamic. The UK parliament adds another more secular dynamic to this potent mix and needs to do so with more subtlety than in this instance.

    Former Secretary of State Peter Hain said in 28 March, 2018 that the way the British Government was legislating for Northern Ireland in the absence of the executive amounted to “direct rule in all but name”. Mr. Hain also has experience of this, having in 2007 brought in regulations making it unlawful to refuse goods and services to people on grounds of sexual orientation in spite of substantive opposition from Catholic, Anglican and protestant churches and leading NI politicians. One might recall that this and the issue over gay adoption led to some division in the Labour party with a certain Mr Blair and Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly both being out of step with the mood of the party and much of the country. All party’s have to deal with differences of opinion.

    You say “We should be able to use constitutional means to further the human rights of citizens until such time as the political parties agree to take on the responsibilities of devolution again.” Who chooses which constitutional means takes priority? That is the start of William Prynne’s “pleasant road that leads to hell” the route that can end in such monstrosities as the Enabling Act of 1933 (Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich) the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag.

    Its easy to impose rule but is it desirable?

    I am certainly not against abortion – indeed I was proud to have been on the women’s right to choose marches in Glasgow back in the 70’s. I have worked hard to gain equality for all throughout my life supporting LGBT rights and campaigning against racism and being active in anti-racism events. BUT equality means equality and that includes listening to the concerns of minorities and in this day and age those minorities include those you might say have Victorian era views. They are not ‘Victorian era views’ they are just views or beliefs. Working with minority groups who are oppressed often leads you into areas that are difficult to navigate particularly when working with BME groups which hold firm religious beliefs – often fundamental Christian or Muslim. Their beliefs are just as valid as my own but I have to argue for my own whilst being sensitive and respective to theirs. You should try to do the same with regard to the beliefs of many in Northern Ireland and within the likes of the DUP who truly hold deep religious views and convictions, people who are easily and lazily characterised as just blatant bigots.

    I agree with all of the legislation that was introduced to Northern Ireland through this bill (except perhaps the gestation period) but I do not agree with the way it was introduced. Rule by Westminster over the devolved parliaments in devolved areas is not a good thing – it is anti-democratic.

    Nye Bevan famously said ‘only by the possession of power can you get the priorities correct’ Time for independence then.

    1. A well argued ripost Wynn.

      Alistair, I would be curious where your self-righteous attitude stops.
      You think it correct that Westminster ‘gifts’ N Ireland certain socially liberal rights (which I happen to agree with), even though it’s own elected politicians may, or may not have passed such legislation themselves, even if their legislature was sitting.
      Given that, do you think Westminster should then override legislation passed by a devolved legislature, on a devolved issue, because Westminster has a politically different philosophy?
      If you do, then do you agree that independence from Westminster is the only legitimate way for that same devolved legislature to realise the power obtained in elections from democratic mandates?
      It’s a fairly simple question. Where does power sit: was Enoch right? and was signing the Claim of Right by Labour just a show ground hustle? Perhaps Scots believe that is the case—it would explain the comprehensive collapse in support—but how can Labour regain trust with Scotland always relegated to second place?

  5. Alistair,
    You’ve enthused me.
    I want to be there, when Jeremy comes to Glasgow. I want to stand shoulder to shoulder and feel that solidarity of The Comrades. But I’m embarrassed to admit, I dont know the words to the song. Where can I find the lyrics to ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’? Please help. See you at The Concert Hall.

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