You’ve read about the campaigns. Now read about the victory.
The day started with an anti climax. Dominic Grieve’s bid to thwart any attempt to deny parliament a vote on No Deal wasn’t called by the Speaker. The attempts by Co Armagh born Labour MP’s Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy to legislate for abortion and same sex marriage were certain to fail for antagonising the DUP, for coming at the wrong time with all this Brexit stuff about and for being too contrived an issue to hang on a government measure designed only to postpone an Assembly election yet again.
But blow me I was wrong. After a decade of evasion I didn’t think they had it in them.
For once the House of Commons was taking Northern Ireland seriously and not just as a spin-off of Brexit.
In two majorities of over 200 on free votes, MPs presented the Assembly parties with a challenge – pass an abortion and equal marriage laws or we will do the job for you. And there are a lot of other matters waiting in the wings. The vote is a huge rebuff to the DUP who are opposed and a challenge to Sinn Fein who are in favour of both to enact their own laws rather than allow a “foreign ” parliament to take over again. It is also a challenge to them all on the controversial grounds that it asserts Westminster sovereignty in the absence of the Assembly. However pro- reform Sinn Fein might find it as difficult to object to as the DUP. Sinn Fein have already called on Westminster to pass an Irish language Act and become more assertive about the legacy. Both sides might use this vote as an excuse to keep stalling It might be seen as creeping direct rule. It was a backbench success and it may not be the last. On the other hand it could be the catalyst not only the local parties need, but the two governments. Could Brexit be next?
The conservatives were split but many spoke in favour, impressed by the Supreme Court’s qualified call for action and high hopes for the Sarah Ewart case before the High Court in Belfast.
McGinn’s amendment was carefully worded to allow a restored Assembly to take over. It stipulates that, if devolution is not restored to Northern Ireland in the form of a functioning Assembly and Executive, the Secretary of State would bring forward regulations in the Commons to introduce the legalisation for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. The cross party vote suggests the DUP couldn’t veto these specific measures. But will they raise the stakes and try to force a government climbdown as part of a new confidence and supply deal with the new government?
Dire warnings about the effect on the Stormont talks came from Nigel Dodds
This proposal does drive a coach and horses through the principle of devolution.. and at a time when there are real prospects of discussions taking place among the political parties leading to an agreement for the restoration of devolution
You could have fooled me. But of course the DUP are quite happy to have direct rule.
I entirely accept that if we do not reach that point and there is direct rule, it should be for the House to legislate across the board. It has the right to do so, and we can still have a debate and discuss and argue about those issues.
There are lots of other neglected NI issues for parliament tackle. Not our fault guv. Why pick on this one? And he came up with a Dodds doctrine. The military covenant to be applied to Northern Ireland, but that was a UK wide issue. That was ok.
I referred earlier to issues on which there has been a consensus, a cross-party view that something should happen. The Government have always been willing to take such issues on board, as, indeed, have the Opposition. One example is the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry. All the party leaders have written to say that that is one area in which they would be content for something to be done, but that had been agreed by everyone across the community.
But Nigel, human rights are a UK wide issue – that’s the whole point!
Dear old Colonel Bob Stewart blurted out a growing opinion on the Tory benches ..
I was one of those who stood up and said that they had got it wrong. I got it wrong, and I now support the legislation. I agree with this proposal, and I agree with the one on abortion, but the problem is that this is like a crack in the dam. If we crack the dam, more and more things will come through. I do not mind that, because I am beginning to think that we will have to have direct rule. I would like very much for us to consider all the problems in Northern Ireland and to deal with them. If we do not have an effective Executive in Northern Ireland, we are going to have to do that anyway. What we have to realise today is that if we pass these new clauses, it will be the thin end of the wedge and other things will, and should, follow, because they are very important to people in Northern Ireland.
Then the full Uriah Heap from Paisley junior.
.. abortion would take place in Northern Ireland without any framework whatsoever. It would be completely and totally unregulated. We have no idea of the scope. Would we have terminations at 12 weeks, 28 weeks or right up to birth?
We would have no regulations on where abortions could take place. There would be no regulatory framework on who could carry out those abortions, and there would be no regulatory framework on sex selection or, indeed, disability denial. All those matters require careful and considered regulation and legislation. Unfortunately, new clause 10 is not careful and does not give the time or scope for any of these matters to be properly considered.
One little question would have undermined their position. “Are you and your party in favour of abortion?” The answer No would have exposed their principled objections as political tactics.
Rights champion Stella Creasy let Paisley have it with both barrels.
I thank him for raising those issues, which are myths that need to be dispelled, although I understand his concerns…. I am mindful that the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Midwives, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have all set out proposals for medical guidance. Absolutely, abortion should be regulated. Absolutely, there should be clear guidelines. Nobody is seeking to change the term limit we have in England and Wales. The question is whether the law should be underpinned by criminal legislation or medical regulation, which is what new clause 10 would allow us to consider. It would therefore allow us to answer the question about the inequality of experience between my constituents in Walthamstow and the constituents of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) in Northern Ireland.
You have said many times, and it has caused distress, that a woman in Northern Ireland who is raped and seeks an abortion could face a longer jail sentence than her attacker. I have corresponded with the Police Service of Northern Ireland on this matter because of the concern you have caused out there. PSNI has confirmed that no woman has been sent to prison for an abortion-related offence, and I am meeting PSNI to talk it through..
Creasy came back at her.
It is simply not the case that people have not been prosecuted. A mother is facing a jail sentence in November. We know that, in 2017, a man and woman accepted formal cautions under OPA for the same offence, and the charges were withdrawn only after the judge imposed a ban on identifying the woman due to the heightened risk of her suicide because of her distress at the situation. We know that, in 2016, a 21-year-old pleaded guilty to procuring her own abortion by poison after she bought pills online and her flatmate reported her to the police. Prosecution is a very real prospect in Northern Ireland, but it is not a real prospect for my constituents in another part of the United Kingdom who are in exactly the same situation… how much longer are the women of Northern Ireland expected to wait? How much more are they expected to suffer before we speak up—the best of what this place does—as human rights defenders, not human rights deniers?
The Conservative MP Simon Hoare is the new chair of the NI Select Committee. He knew which way the wind was blowing..
The devolution settlement is perfectly clear, as is, I believe, our duty to respect it. Less clear, I suggest, is how we as politicians address the issues raised in the amendments today when devolution is not present, but where there is a clear and pressing call for action. I understand entirely that human rights were devolved under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, but I cannot understand why that was the case. It seems to me that there is an incredibly strong and compelling argument about the universality of human rights for citizens of the United Kingdom and to try to move away from that in some way starts to pick away at some of the fabric of Unionism.
The vote was passed by 332 to 99.
Both were free votes for MPs, as they were viewed as a matter of conscience. While the Northern Ireland minister, John Penrose, who spoke for the government, warned MPs that both potential changes would be fraught with complications, he voted in favour of both amendments.
On same-sex marriage, he warned it might not be possible to change the law within three months. “While I appreciate and sympathise with what the honourable gentleman is trying to achieve here, I would just issue a note of warning to anybody who is considering voting for this. If and when the Assembly is revived, it can then approve or repeal the measure..”
But how if it was passed could it ever be withdrawn?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London