It still doesn’t feel real, the prospect that marriage equality and abortion reform will become legal realities on Monday the 21st October, but here we are. I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch but as someone who has been at the forefront of the marriage equality campaign for the guts of a decade, it’s strange to see the culmination of the work you’ve been doing with fellow travellers for the last eight years come to fruition.
I remember that day in July as we stood, tongues bitten and fingers crossed, hearts beating like drums, as the result of Conor McGinn’s amendment was read out in the House of Commons. That we had won. Not long after we got news that Stella Creasy’s amendment was accepted by the House and abortion and marriage equality would both be the law of land come October 21st.
But we aren’t there yet, and I know it would be highly unwise to count chickens before they hatch. I’m aware that parliamentary time and arithmetic is in our favour, but given that we have been up this hill before and that the DUP are determined to do all that they can to block the laws from coming into force I wouldn’t be surprised if something changed at the last minute. I don’t anticipate that it will but the DUP are pulling out every stop.
The recent campaign by the anti-choice movement to pressure MLAs to get back to Stormont and form an Executive before Monday has caused consternation. Marriage equality has barely been mentioned by the DUP since July – it appears that opposition to it no longer holds any electoral weight – instead the focus has been on abortion reform. There’s much more fertile ground to dig amongst those who would be supportive of marriage equality but uneasy or opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion. MLAs in the SDLP and Ulster Unionists and even the Alliance Party, for example, who would be vocal and supportive of legislative moves align LGBT rights with the rest of these islands, but hesitant to cheer on the idea of women accessing abortion services in their own constituencies.
There are certainly enough MLAs in the Assembly to pass an equal marriage bill (the Petition of Concern notwithstanding) but any attempt to reform abortion laws through the devolved chamber would be doomed to fail. Moves to recall the Assembly on Monday by way of asking 30 MLAs to sign a letter to the Speaker seems to have been successful, with the DUP needing the help of several other MLAs (Jim Allister of the TUV and UUP MLAs Robbie Butler, Robin Swann and Alan Chambers) but without the input of Sinn Féin, it would be the DUP and the other signatories sitting in the chamber with no legal power to do anything. It wouldn’t be a reconstituted Assembly anymore than if all 90 MLAs were sitting on the same Translink Metro bus. Unless Sinn Féin nominates a Deputy First Minister and until all other Executive Ministerial posts are filled there is no Assembly to speak of.
The surprising and somewhat cynical move of the Northern Ireland Office to put videos of prominent community figures on social media, calling for Stormont to be revived before Monday have been slammed as opportunistic and devoid of any decorum, particularly as one featured Nichola Corner, the sister of murdered journalist and equality campaigner Lyra McKee. The video has since been removed but it’s clear that the DUP is breathing down the neck of Secretary of State Julian Smith to do whatever he can to stop abortion reform by way of resurrecting the Executive. It isn’t going to happen without Sinn Féin, and they would be irresponsible and stupid to throw equality campaigners under the bus at the eleventh hour to satisfy the DUP.
No party, or MLA for that matter, that means what they say about marriage equality and abortion reform should entertain the idea of stopping these hard-won victories in their tracks. For starters it would be political suicide for the likes of Sinn Féin, the SDLP or the Alliance Party to go back into Government with the DUP before the 21st October, secondly, they would never be able to show their faces at another Pride event, women’s march or LGBT space ever again. They would sacrifice political capital, and possibly lose a number of their own elected representatives and activists, for absolutely nothing.
It doesn’t mean that the DUP won’t keep trying whatever possible mechanisms or underhand tactics they can to circumvent the will of Parliament, and the will of the people (successive polling has shown that the majority of people in Northern Ireland support both the introduction of marriage equality and the reform of our restrictive and archaic abortion laws). I would hazard a guess that Arlene et al was trying desperately to leverage their influence over BoJo’s Brexit deal to shaft abortion rights campaigners, but of course I cannot prove that.
Come what may, Monday will be a significant and historic day for this little place as it takes its place amongst the rest of these islands and Western Europe as somewhere that treats same-sex couples as equals and finally provides the compassion, kindness and medical care to those seeking a termination.
Stephen Donnan-Dalzell is a freelance writer, commentator and LGBT activist. Working in mental health & addictions. They/Them