Abortion and marriage equality amendments should ensure a key aim of the Northern Ireland Bill fails

I cannot be the only one to see the irony in the Speaker in allowing an amendment to a bill intended to set a new time limit for the Assembly which effectively provides a major incentive for the major Stormont parties to break that time limit.

I have little sympathy for the clownish muddling Brexiteers have found themselves embroiled in (though I am thankful the government in Dublin finally owned up this week to the real dangers for Ireland), but I begin to understand some of their frustration with Bercow.

Leave aside for a moment, the unallowed joy that many like Ciaran rightly feel at being gifted what they’ve waited so patiently for almost out of the blue, and just look at the summary of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill 2017-19:

Extend the period for forming an Executive under section 1(1) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 and to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to report on progress towards the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland.

The purpose of the bill was to try to manage this odd state of affairs in which the Assembly’s continues without sitting, but devolution remains in place by resetting the deadline from August to the end of October.

The bill now compels the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to change the law via the previously hated statutory instrument, so that marriage between same-sex couples is lawful and must be in force no later than 21 October 2019.

There is a caveat to the effect that if Northern Ireland Executive is formed “before the regulations under this section come into force, any regulations made under this section and any extant obligations arising under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect”.

To which my response is, aye right. Of which, more towards the end.

On the abortion issue, there is mention of international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (or CEDAW) already incumbent upon the whole of the UK.

As with all such conventions the language is loosely drafted to allow a range of interpretations. Although abortion is not mentioned in the convention the UN committee responsible has interpreted Article 12 as implying the complete decriminalisation of abortion.

It depends how the SoS interprets those terms. If she/he legislates for decriminalisation that would bring NI a more radical form of the law than pertains in either the Republic or the rest of the UK where the prohibitions of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 still applies.

Now back to the constitutional nonsense of the bill here. Neither of these two measures can be guaranteed unless the new deadline in the law is breached.  Ha! And you thought you’d already seen logic stretched to breaking point dozens of times over in NI.

Of course the illogic doesn’t stop there. This is all happening on the DUP’s watch, the most socially conservative of any political party in Westminster bar none and one which happily boasts to its supporters of the influence it has in London.

Of course, given the loose nature of the relationship they have with the executive under confidence and supply it also means while they publicly express fury at the last minute switcheroo, they are also relieved they won’t have to deal with it in Stormont.

Sinn Féin, who had to call a special Ard Fheis only a year ago to change their previous social conservative objections to the much more stringent act in the Republic which effectively decriminalises abortion up to 12 weeks but not after, have been lauding the change.

Listen to this exchange between Jeffrey Donaldson (who takes his seat in Westminster and therefore recognises parliamentary sovereignty) and Conor Murphy (who didn’t when he was an MP and so apparently doesn’t).

There is a counterpoint to this nonsense (I’m not referring to the serious issues at play but the weird theatre of the absurd that got us here) and that is that effectively Westminster is also acting decisively to take the DUP’s and SF’s most dangerous toys away from them.

Yes, the government is undermining the incentives for the parties to comply with the very law they’ve passed and return to Stormont. But they’ve also removed two serious social issues that had become a plaything for both of them to signal difference between themselves.

It is also something of a warning to social conservatives in that if you push the blocks against issues that you would rather not see happening too high, you risk being inundated so that when the change comes it washes away all your defences in a single wave.

Photo by Muzammil Soorma is licensed under CC0