10 for 10: Time for Northern Ireland to enter the 21st century
It is deeply wrong that parliament is going on holiday for 10 weeks at a time of national crisis and peril, as I argue here. So what should the government be bringing to parliament instead of a 10-week holiday? I will be publishing detailed proposals for 10 pieces of legislation that would answer the needs of the millions who are left out and left behind in today’s Britain. To start with, a Northern Ireland Equality Bill should be introduced that brings Ulster into the 21st century by legalising abortion and equal marriage.
After the historic referendum in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland is now the only state in Europe apart from Malta where abortion is illegal or severely restricted. Dating from 1861, Northern Irish abortion law is archaic in age and substance: abortion is illegal in almost every circumstance – even in cases of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormalities.
The most vulnerable and marginalized women are most affected by these laws: girls too young to fly alone or women with serious health problems cannot travel abroad for an abortion. Worse, women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to free NHS abortions in England, so it is not even an option for many women. Despite these barriers, the number of women and girls making the journey to England to have access to a safe abortion rose dramatically in the three months since March to 342, with 919 travelling in 2017.
This situation is unconscionable. Last month the UK Supreme Court stated that it is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement also recently warned of the risks of creating a difference in rights protections on a north-south basis and recommended that the UK and Irish governments ensure the safeguarding of the north-south equivalency of rights on an ongoing basis.
Unsurprisingly, a 2017 poll by ARK found strong majority support in Northern Ireland itself for abortion rights.
With no devolved assembly sitting very likely, it is imperative that parliament, as the guarantor of fundamental rights across the UK, legislates immediately to legalise abortion. There is strong political support for doing so, more than 170 politicians, from both communities in Northern Ireland, recently signed a letter to Theresa May calling for this.
Parliament should also legislate for equal marriage in Northern Ireland. There is a huge majority in favour of doing so, a SkyData poll in March found that 76% of people in Northern Ireland think same-sex marriage should be legal. Equal marriage is also the will of the Northern Ireland Assembly: it previously passed an equal marriage bill, but the DUP employed an arcane power to block it.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has now hinted that the DUP might not wish to block equal marriage again. But the inability to form a government in Stormont has prevented it being passed, and this delay has led the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland among others to back passing legislation in Westminster to do so. Bills legislating for equal marriage in Northern Ireland have been submitted but are now stalled by Parliament’s three month holiday, and it is unclear whether Theresa May will allow them to progress even in the autumn because of the DUP veto over all her policies.
The disregard for basic liberties in Northern Ireland is unacceptable. The injustice is unbearable and must stop.