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the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive subsequently restored, it would be very unlikely the changes would ever be repealed as they had majority support among the people of Northern Ireland.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.