Now for the North
Since the seismic changes in the Republic of Ireland in 2015 and 2018, with the referenda on marriage equality and abortion access, there has been a groundswell of support for legislation on these rights north of the border. Northern Ireland is the last remaining part of the UK that denies these rights to its citizens, and with a lack of a devolved government in Stormont since January 2017, changes to this were looking more and more unlikely in the short term. However, on the 9th of July 2019, when deciding on a new deadline for re-instatement of the Stormont executive, MPs in Westminster also voted to extend same-sex marriage and abortion rights to Northern Ireland. This was a huge moment for campaigners for marriage equality and abortion rights, however their optimism is tempered by the long road left to travel.
The vote by Westminster stated that in the event that power sharing is not restored by the 21st of October, they will legislate for abortion and same-sex marriage in NI. These new laws are then likely to come into effect in the new year, potentially around March 2020. However, if Sinn Fein and the DUP manage to put aside their differences before then (which they haven’t done for over two years), and restore a Northern Ireland Executive, these changes will not come into effect. With the DUP so vehemently against both same-sex marriage and abortion rights, it is very unlikely that were power-sharing to be restored, they would legislate for these issues locally. The devolved government could also overturn any laws put in place on these issues by Westminster, even if it is not reinstated until after the changes are made.
Religion and politics remain inextricably linked in Northern Ireland, even more so than here in the historically Catholic state of the Republic, which has been steadily moving away from what was essentially a theocracy for the past century. With the current tensions surrounding Brexit and the lack of power-sharing, this link between religion and politics could put the new legislation at risk. A large proportion of the citizens of Northern Ireland strongly identify with their religions as a result of the political tensions, making the influence of the catholic and protestant churches a force to be reckoned with. The focus of Westminster is on Brexit, and with a new prime minister about to take office, it is possible that same-sex marriage and abortion will be pushed aside in favour of keeping the peace, should tensions rise as a result of these legislative changes. The recent death of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry highlighted just how close to the surface tensions in the North are already. Her death is particularly poignant as we face into the legalisation of same-sex marriage, as Ms McKee was set to marry her partner Sara Canning in Donegal. Ms Canning has spoken about how bittersweet this news is, that something that has so badly been wished for will not be able to be shared with the woman she loved.
At the moment, this change, while a huge step forward, is not yet implemented. A mother is set to go on trial in September for procuring abortion pills for her teenage daughter, and gay couples face the daily indignity of their love being seen as less than that of straight couples. Northern Ireland needs the support of people across the UK and in the Republic of Ireland more than ever. Pride month is just over in the UK, and on the 7thof September, there will be a rally for choice in Belfast. Now, more than ever, it is time to put our words and hashtags into action for both of these issues, and stand with the citizens of Northern Ireland as they fight for the rights we enjoy across the Republic of Ireland and the UK. Get out, get involved, and make your voices heard.