One day in politics can change everything.
The Northern Ireland Executive Formations Bill was, until the 9th July, an uninteresting piece of legislation. It proposes to amend the Northern Ireland (Executive and Exercise of Formations Bill) 2018, a law passed in the wake of the collapse of the Assembly. The Secretary of State introduced the 2019 Bill to extend the period in which an Executive must be formed until the 21st October 2019. There’s a clause allowing an extension of this time frame until January 2020. So far, so dull.
On the 9th July Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy put forward two amendments to the Executive Formations Bill, one on equal marriage, the other on abortion. McGinn’s amendment stated that the Secretary of State must lay regulations legalising same sex marriage in Northern Ireland if Stormont isn’t restored by the October deadline. Creasy’s amendment states that the Secretary of State must introduce regulations to amend Northern Ireland’s abortion laws in line with United Nations recommendations under CEDAW. The recommendations include decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland and allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality.
There was joy when both amendments were selected by the Speaker but, out of the two, McGinn’s amendment was seen as most likely to pass. Few predicted that both Labour MPs would win the day. McGinn’s amendment passed by 383-73, Creasy’s 332 to 99.
One can’t the stress the importance of what happened yesterday. Westminster choosing to act on abortion and equal marriage is significant. There has finally been a change in attitude. MPs have always been disinterested in Northern Irish legislation. They tend to hold it at arm’s length as a mother would with a crying child. The House of Commons is always poorly attended for Northern Ireland Questions. Conor McGinn’s previous attempts to legalise same sex marriage in Northern Ireland have failed. The House of Commons has refused to act on any opportunity to extend the 1967 Abortion Act. On the 9th July, MPs finally decided to step up to the plate.
Was it the Confidence and Supply Agreement that finally changed minds? The fact that Northern Ireland has been without a government for two and a half years? The talks to restore the institutions are going nowhere. Both these arguments ignore the fact that Westminster wouldn’t have acted if it hadn’t been for activists in Northern Ireland. This is their victory.
There has been widespread criticism that Westminster’s actions drive a cart and horse through the devolution settlement. I’d argue, on the contrary, that the unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom is ticking along nicely. Creasy’s amendment addresses breaches of the CEDAW convention, an international treaty that the United Kingdom is a signatory to. International obligations are a reserved matter under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The same act states in article 5(6) that, “This section does not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Northern Ireland, but an Act of the Assembly may modify any provision made by or under an Act of Parliament in so far as it is part of the law of Northern Ireland.” Parliament is supreme and it asserted that very clearly yesterday.
It is a sad indictment of the Assembly, and our current political settlement, that Westminster felt the need to act. The only people disrespecting devolution are our MLAs. The Assembly sits in a half-way house, present but toothless and powerless.
Some won’t celebrate until any law change is given royal assent. Richard Bullick, on Twitter, has pointed out that a Minister of Crown has declined to make a statement that the 2019 is compliant with the European Convention of Human Rights. There may be a political fight ahead. Parliament could legislate to reverse its position. The Assembly, if it returns, could vote to amend any legislation passed at Westminster. A General Election may throw a spanner in the works.
All eyes now turn to the talks at Stormont. The DUP isn’t expected to change its position on social issues so the pressure will fall on Sinn Fein. The party will never be forgiven if it agrees a deal with the DUP before the 21st that doesn’t guarantee equal marriage and abortion reform. If there is any chance of an Assembly return before the Westminster deadline, reform of the Petition of Concern will become a pressing issue. Many will cheer if Stormont lies dormant for another few months.
Westminster has changed the dynamic of the talks. A gauntlet has been thrown to MLAs: act or we’ll do it for you. There will now be greater calls for legislative action from HIA victims and Irish language campaigners.
Social reforms that activists have been campaigning on for decades are, suddenly, within touching distance. Change is possible now. Few will settle for anything less.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.