In a historic first both abortion and same gender* marriage have been decriminalised in Northern Ireland. While the rest of the UK decriminalised abortion in 1967 — albeit under specific and restrictive circumstances — Stormont, the devolved Northern Irish parliament, rejected The Abortion Act, choosing instead to keep a total ban in place. In recent years it was liberalised slightly to allow for abortions prior to nine weeks if the life of the pregnant person was in immediate danger, but a penalty of lifetime imprisonment was still in place for any abortion conducted outside of these parameters. Similarly, though same-gender couples have been able to access civil partnerships in Northern Ireland since 2005, Stormont has blocked any attempt to open marriage up to them despite the Scottish and Westminster parliaments doing so in 2014.
Campaigners have been pushing hard for both sets of legislation for many years now, with 80% of the public backing abortion in at least some circumstances and 59% in favour of same-gender marriage. The last time same gender marriage was put to the vote in Stormant the ayes actually had it — but the DUP, Northern Ireland’s ruling party, vetoed the change using something called the Petition of Concern, a political tool designed to keep any one community from enacting discriminatory legislation over another, but which here was deployed counter to its purpose. Infuriatingly for many, these changes haven’t now come about due to any change in the DUP’s position but because of the historic failure of the Northern Irish parliament to successfully form a government. A condition of the Good Friday Agreement is that power must be shared between the two majority parties in Stormont, and as these parties have been unable to form an agreement for over two years now, power on many devolved matters has reverted to the central Westminster government.
The legislation came into force at Midnight on October the 21st as there is still no government in Northern Ireland. Prior to this deadline, the Northern Irish parliament had the option to vote it down as long as they were able to come to an agreement and reopen. While the DUP made an attempt to recall parliament to prevent this legislation passing the other parties refused to co-operate, with Sinn Féin referring to it as “a cynical ploy”.
While the first same gender marriage won’t be taking place in Northern Ireland until February 2020, and the government has until April to produce the regulations governing abortion, no one receiving an abortion in Northern Ireland, or any medical staff assisting them, can be prosecuted for it from this point onward. Travel to and accommodation in England, as well as the procedure, will also now be funded by the Northern Irish government for residents seeking an abortion abroad during this interim period. Comprehensive, age-appropriate and scientifically correct sex ed will also be introduced in Northern Irish skills under the aegis of these new laws.
*gender here refers to legally recognised gender which is not always concordant with the person’s actual gender identity.