It may not be set in concrete, but the two votes to extend marriage equality and abortion rights to Northern Ireland in the House of Commons are a game-changing step forward for campaigns to secure equal rights for same-sex couples and bodily autonomy for women here.
On Tuesday, MPs overwhelmingly voted to pass both equality amendments to a bill on budgets and elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The vote doesn’t mean that marriage equality and abortion are now automatically legal – but they do mean that the UK government must legislate on the two issues if Stormont isn’t up and running by 21st October.
“We are so pleased that Westminster voted to uphold our human rights,” says Danielle Roberts, the policy officer for Belfast-based lesbian and bisexual women's charity Here NI and an activist for Alliance For Choice, the main abortion rights group in Northern Ireland. “We hope, in a little over 100 days, we will see these changes enacted.”
Since the 2017 collapse of the devolved government in Northern Ireland, there have been repeated calls from both campaigns for marriage equality and abortion reform for Westminster to implement reforms over the head of Stormont. Theresa May and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley repeatedly refused to intervene on these issues, dismissing them as devolved matters and not the responsibility of Westminster.
According to the MLAs at Stormont, the ongoing political talks to resolve the collapse have been slow to progress. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have stated that Tuesday’s vote will make it more difficult to secure a deal to get the Assembly up and running again – and Sinn Féin and other parties that advocated for marriage equality and abortion access are unlikely to risk torpedoing this progress by going back into government with the DUP.
The campaign for LGBTQ rights in Northern Ireland has been a long and often fraught battle between activists and the DUP, which has historically opposed almost every single piece of progressive legislation. The Love Equality campaign – a consortium of human rights groups, LGBT advocacy organisations, trade unions and the student movement – launched in 2016 to campaign for a change in the law for queer couples. The campaign, much like that of Alliance For Choice, has focused on winning hearts and minds, lobbying the business community and politicians in Stormont and Westminster, and putting a human face to the fight by including the personal stories and experiences of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland.
“Yesterday we took the largest step to date towards ending discrimination against same-sex couples in Northern Ireland,” says John O’Doherty, the director of the Rainbow Project and one of the leaders of the marriage equality campaign. “The margin of victory in the votes cannot be dismissed. It is clear that an overwhelming majority of MPs are in favour, reflecting the majority in favour in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the views of the people in Northern Ireland. For over eight years we have worked on this campaign, and finally we are seeing progress on an issue that should have been dealt with long ago.”
The campaign to extend abortion access has been going for even longer than the one for marriage equality. The 1967 Abortion Act that legalised terminations in England and Wales doesn’t exist in the country and has never been extended. It is a criminal offence in Northern Ireland for a doctor to perform an abortion, or for those seeking an abortion to take abortion pills. Those needing an abortion have had to travel to other parts of the UK to seek an essential – and often life-saving – healthcare procedure.
The campaign in Northern Ireland was boosted after the decisive referendum in the Republic of Ireland to liberalise their abortion laws by repealing the 8th Amendment of their constitution. Many Northern activists joined that campaign to advocate for a Yes vote, and have seen that solidarity reciprocated by way of public demonstrations and an intensifying awareness campaign highlighting the laws in Northern Ireland governing abortion.
For both marriage equality and abortion rights activists, the developments in Westminster are the surprise culmination of years of fighting – though there is still lots to be done.
“This was unimaginable a year ago when these amendments weren’t even being selected,” says Alliance For Choice spokesperson Emma Gallen. “At least 300 woman and girls will still have to travel before they will get services at home so our work is not done yet. We want it to be known that this legislation has been looked at by experts and we hope that this time next year people will be able to access healthcare at home.”