Northern Ireland is poised to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage after an 11th-hour attempt by the region’s assembly to block change collapsed into farce.
Equality campaigners celebrated on Monday as the clock ticked towards midnight when laws extending abortion and marriage rights were due to come into force, ushering in momentous social change as Northern Ireland aligned with the rest of the UK.
Anti-abortion groups led by the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) tried to avert liberalisation by recalling the mothballed chamber at Stormont for the first time in almost three years. But discord and walkouts stymied debate and left the assembly deserted.
“The beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland – one in which we’re free from oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and healthcare,” said Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager.
“Thank you to everyone who has told their stories to help us reach this milestone,” tweeted Love Equality NI, an umbrella group that campaigned for marriage equality. “A historic moment,” said the advocacy group Stonewall.
The new legislation puts the House of Commons on track to legislate for marriage equality by January 2020, paving the way for same-sex couples to wed from 14 February – Valentine’s Day.
The abortion law obliges the UK to ensure regulations for free, legal and local abortion services are in place by 31 March 2020.
After midnight there will be a moratorium on criminal prosecutions, halting police investigations into abortion cases, including a case against a mother who faced jail for buying her then 15-year-old daughter abortion pills online, said Amnesty.
“In 2014 when I needed an abortion and was denied one I swore I would add my voice to the campaign for abortion rights and to have achieved that is just incredible,” said Ashleigh Topley, who was part of a supreme court challenge to the ban.
The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, in contrast, lamented a “shameful” day and said her party would examine ways to repeal the legislation. “We will do everything in our conscience to protect the lives of the unborn,” she said.
Northern Ireland had 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.
The Conservative government, reliant on DUP votes in Westminster, declined to intervene, saying both issues were for devolved government. However a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin toppled the power-sharing assembly and executive at Stormont in January 2017, leaving a vacuum.
Campaigners broke the stalemate in July when two Labour MPs, Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn, tabled amendments on abortion and same-sex marriage to an otherwise technical government bill connected to the defunct assembly. MPs voted overwhelmingly for both.
Monday was the last chance for opponents of change to restore Stormont and avert the legislation.
Some 31 members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) signed a petition to force a recall to discuss a motion to put abortion rights back in the hands of local politicians.
Sinn Féin and the Alliance party said they would not attend, calling the event a stunt, leaving Monday’s gathering largely symbolic and devoid of the power to elect a new speaker and form an executive.
The recall degenerated into debacle when MLAs clashed with each other and the outgoing speaker, Robin Newton, over procedure. Newton said electing a new speaker required cross-party support. The only nationalist party present, the SDLP, withheld support.
One by one members of the DUP, the Ulster Unionists (UUP), SDLP and other parties walked out. By the time the Speaker called a vote on adjournment the chamber was empty.
Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, said the attempted recall further battered public confidence in the defunct assembly. The UUP leader, Robin Swann, questioned whether Stormont institutions were worth saving.