What the legalisation of same sex marriage and abortion means for Northern Ireland

As the clock struck midnight on 21 October, thousands of campaigners throughout Northern Ireland and further afield celebrated as their efforts were finally met with success. After a decades long fight by activists, legislation has come into effect that will decriminalise abortion and legalise same-sex marriage throughout Northern Ireland (NI). 

Before now, NI was the only place in the UK where it was not legal to get married as a same-sex couple, or for a woman to receive an abortion. The Republic of Ireland was also ahead as referenda had been met with overwhelming support for same-sex marriage and abortion in 2015 and 2018 respectively.

However, cause for NI lagging behind its counterparts could largely be blamed on one of the major political parties: the DUP. A proposal in 2015 highlighted that a majority of the NI Assembly was on favour of same-sex marriage, but the DUP launched a petition of concern which essentially blocked the motion from progressing as there was not a cross-community majority between the nationalist and unionist parties. 

It is only due to the fact that the NI Parliament has been suspended for over 2 years that these legislations were allowed to pass.  

This monumental change came as a default after Westminster voted for NI’s legislation to come into alignment with the UK Abortion Act of 1967. This protected the right for women to have a termination in England, Scotland and Wales. 

In July, Westminster MP’s voted overwhelmingly (and swiftly, with both decisions taking just fifteen minutes) in favour of changing both the laws surrounding abortion and same-sex marriage; ensuring the new legislation would come into place if the currently defunct Northern Ireland government was not restored by 21 October, which it was not.

However, for many activists there is also a tinge of sadness mixed with this historic moment as many who campaigned will never get to see their hard work come to fruition. One particular activist was journalist Lyra McKee who was tragically killed earlier this year, spurring an outcry that helped contribute to Westminster MPs seriously looking at legislation to change marriage laws.

One reason why it has taken so long for the laws to change in NI is due to the staunchly religious views held by many of the main political parties. 

Despite the majority who celebrated this momentous decision, there were those who protested against it marking it as NI’s “Darkest Day”, causing outrage on social media by those who believe it ignores the decades of political violence from which Northern Ireland has only recently emerged. 

There was also anger at members of the DUP and other unionist parties who appeared in Stormont after over 1000 days without a government in an attempt to block the legislation. However the move failed because a new speaker could not be elected on a cross-community basis as no politicians from the nationalist parties were present. 

Despite this backlash, there is generally an overwhelming sense of relief and celebration for many, who see the altered legislation as a huge success for human rights.

Legislation for same sex marriage is due to be brought fully into affect by January, meaning that the first same sex couples will be able to marry in February. In regards to abortion, the government has up until March to come up with regulations for the provision of abortion services. For citizens of NI this is a historic moment and paves the way for equal rights for those that live there.

 

Image: Liam McBurney via theconversation.com

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