POLITICS
24/10/2018 19:26 BST | Updated 25/10/2018 09:27 BST

MPs Take Major Step To Ending Northern Ireland's Abortion And Same-Sex Marriage Bans

Vote in Westminster could lead to seismic shift in region.

MPs in Westminster have voted in favour of reform to abortion and marriage laws in Northern Ireland that could lead to the province having to comply with human rights legislation that applies in the rest of the UK.

Labour MP Stella Creasy’s amendment to emergency legislation linked to the region’s powersharing crisis was approved by 207 votes to 117 – majority 90 – following a debate in the Commons.

The move stipulates that in the absence of devolved rule in Belfast, the UK Government can direct officials on the ‘incompatability’ of human rights law and the continued curbs on abortion and gay marriage.

While the Northern Ireland Bill is designed to partly address the governance vacuum created by the collapse of powersharing, and provide breathing space for the region’s rowing politicians to resume negotiations, Creasy and Labour colleague Conor McGinn wanted to use it as a vehicle to deliver wider social change.

They were joined by Conservative backbencher Tom Tugendhat as the lead signatories to the amendment, underlining the cross-party support for the move.

But some Tories warned the proposal had the “potential to undermine devolution” amid DUP discontent with interference with the devolution settlement.

The Conservative Party gave MPs a ‘free vote’ on the issue, allowing ministers to vote with their conscience rather than the party line. 

The division list showed there were 45 Conservatives who voted for it along with 148 Labour MPs, eight Liberal Democrats, four Plaid Cymru, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and Independent John Woodcock.

There were 102 Conservative MPs who voted against the amendment, along with four Labour MPs and nine DUP MPs.

The total for the noes was announced in the Commons as 117. A Commons official noted there was a “discrepancy” between the list and the number announced by the tellers, adding there may be two MPs adding their names to the list on Thursday.

The legislation will give civil servants greater clarity over what decisions they can take in the ongoing absence of ministers; enable UK Government ministers to make a number of stalled public appointments; and remove a standing obligation on Mrs Bradley to call another snap Assembly election.

Following the vote, Green MP Caroline Lucas wrote on Twitter: “Congratulations to all involved – this is an historic day for equal rights across the UK.”

Katherine O’Brien, head of policy research at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas), added: “It represents an important step forward in the cross-party effort to ensure that the women of Northern Ireland have their basic rights monitored and upheld.”

Richard Bentley, Marie Stopes UK’s managing director, said: “We are heartened by this show of solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland. For too long they have been treated as second-class citizens, with women and girls denied healthcare in breach of their human rights.

“This amendment is a significant step forward on the path to equality, holding Westminster accountable for monitoring and addressing these issues, and giving guidance to civil servants in Northern Ireland on the issue of abortion.

“We applaud Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn for bringing it forward.”

During debate of the Bill, Creasy urged MPs to stop the rights of Northern Irish people being used as a “political football”.

She said 28 women a week are travelling to England and Wales for abortions – which the Supreme Court has called “cruel and degrading” – and 84 same-sex couples had a civil partnership because they could not marry.

Creasy said: “That’s the very human impact of these very ancient pieces of legislation that we crafted in this place.

“People in Northern Ireland need to hear that their lives are not going to be the casualty of the chaos we’re seeing right now in Northern Ireland.

“Who can make sure we don’t spend the next 10, 20, 30 years hearing the stories of shame, of hurt, of the rights abuses of the people of Northern Ireland and simply shrugging our shoulders because politicians can’t get their act together to have an assembly?”

Conservative former minister Anna Soubry called the current ban on abortion “barbaric and antiquated”, and gave a graphic description of what women in Northern Ireland have to go through because they are unable to terminate pregnancies.

Conservative MP Fiona Bruce opposed the proposal and said it has the “potential to undermine devolution”, telling MPs: “This is an issue which requires the greatest of care, needs to be addressed with considerable compassion and therefore deserves more time for the members of this House certainly to consider than is being given during an emergency debate.”

The DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also said the amendment interferes with the devolution settlement, noting: “I take with some degree of concern this notion that what is proposed is really not about interfering with the devolution settlement. I fear that it does.”

The legislation will give civil servants greater clarity over what decisions they can take in the ongoing absence of ministers; enable UK Government ministers to make a number of stalled public appointments; and remove a standing obligation on Mrs Bradley to call another snap Assembly election.

The Bill later received a third reading and will undergo further scrutiny in the Lords.