In Brief

MPs back abortion and same-sex marriage for Northern Ireland

Equality campaigners celebrate as amendments are passed in Westminster

Westminster MPs have voted overwhelmingly to extend same-sex marriage and access to abortion to Northern Ireland.

The devolved Northern Ireland government at Stormont collapsed in 2017, and repeated talks have failed to repair the breach. Under the amendments approved by the Commons, the changes will come into effect if a new power-sharing executive has not been created by 21 October, the date by which Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley must call a new election.

The amendments voted on were part of a Commons debate aimed at keeping Northern Ireland running in the absence of devolved government and extending Whitehall’s legal power to delay a fresh Stormont election.

The BBC points out that “few had anticipated that the amendments would even be selected for debate, given how much controversy they had the potential to stir up”.

Northern Ireland is currently the only part of the United Kingdom where abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances and where same-sex couples cannot marry. Gay and lesbian weddings were legalised in England and Wales in 2013 and in Scotland in 2014. The first same-sex marriages in the Republic of Ireland took place in the following year.

The Guardian says the results were “greeted ecstatically by equalities campaigners” as MPs broke with protocol to clap in the Commons.

Stella Creasy, the Labour MP who led the fight for abortion rights, said that “everyone in the UK deserves to be treated as an equal”.

During the Commons debate, Nick Herbert, a former Tory minister, told MPs that he was backing the gay marriage amendment, saying: “There is a very simple remedy if you don’t like the idea of same sex marriage - don’t enter into one, it is not compulsory.”

He added that it was wrong that people in one part of the UK “cannot avail themselves of something which many people regard to be a matter of their fundamental rights, which is to be able to enter into a marriage with a person they love”. 

However, The Times points out that “Democratic Unionist MPs, on whom the government relies for its Commons majority, accused Westminster politicians of ignoring the concerns of people in Northern Ireland”.

Indeed, “there are two ways to read what just happened in parliament”, says the BBC’s Jayne McCormack.

“The first, how many campaigners see it, is that this is a watershed moment towards legalising same-sex marriage and liberalising abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

“The other take is that this is the biggest step yet by Westminster when it comes to implementing direct rule in NI.”

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