On Monday, a plenary session was held in Stormont, Northern Ireland’s Assembly. The Assembly, which has not sat in over a thousand days, was brought back together to try and vote about the decriminalisation of abortion and the legalisation of same sex marriage.
What happened and why now?
Since January 2017, Northern Ireland lives without an Executive and an Assembly. So, eventually, Westminster had to pass a bill to keep these institutions running. On the 24th of July 2019, the Northern Ireland Act was granted. This bill extends the period for forming a new Northern Ireland Executive and states 13th of January 2020 as the new deadline for negotiation (which is pretty soon in negotiating time).
But this is not the only interesting thing about that bill. Labour MPs Conor Mc Ginn and Stella Creasy submitted two smart amendments to the vote: if by midnight the 21st of October 2019, no executive power was up running in Northern Ireland, then abortion would be decriminalised and same sex marriage would be legalised. The amendment passed easily in Westminster with 383 votes in favour and 73 against.
As the due date was getting closer, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had a desperate attempt to stop this modernisation of Northern Ireland. It gathered more than 30 signatures of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA – Northern Ireland parliamentarians), the minimum required for a petition of concern. Therefore, the DUP was allowed to express its concerns before the assembly, called back for the occasion.
The Social Democratic and Labour parties came but walked out during the session to protest. Several parties, such as Sinn Féin, Alliance, Green Party and People Before Profit, didn’t attend the session, acknowledging the “political stunt” of the DUP and the TUV (Traditionalist Unionist Voice). “They knew it was a political stunt that was going to fail and have no effect. But they did it anyway. In my view, they didn’t do themselves any favours and they didn’t do these institutions and the efforts to reestablish them any favours”, says Sinn Féin’s MLA for East Derry, Caoimhe Archibald (see full interview below).
Eventually, abortion and same-sex marriage rights were not even discussed in what was a really short session. Less than one hour was all the time needed for the (DUP) Speaker to deny the vote and debate on the concerns expressed through the petition. In fact, it would be controversial if he’d decide whether to hold a vote or not in the Assembly. A new Speaker has to be elected on cross-community basis for a long time now, and only this new Speaker would be entitled to make such a decision to hold a vote or not.
What legal regime during the transition period and afterwards?
So here we are, after 21st of October 2019. Northern Ireland didn’t get an Executive on Monday. No bill was able to be passed in the Assembly. Section 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, criminalizing abortion, have been repealed and new abortion regulation should be implemented in the North by the 31st of March 2020.
From now on, no criminal charges can be brought against any women getting an abortion, nor against anyone delivering an abortion. All the current investigations and cases made against women seeking an abortion in the past and not closed yet, will be dropped.
Between now and the end of March, women can’t hope to get an abortion on Northern Irish soil unless they meet the criteria of “fatal or serious fetal anomality” and are not pregnant for more than 28 weeks. So, for a little longer, women will have to travel to Britain. However, they can call the Central Booking in England and their travel and accommodation expenses will be funded, regardless of the individual’s income. One carer’s expenses can also be covered, so that women don’t have to go through the abortion process on their own oversea.
From April, two sites in Northern Ireland will be open to abortion. The North should be one of the first jurisdiction to organize buffer zones around the abortion sites, prosecuting anyone trying to protest in the area. Also, medical staff should get proper training on abortion cares.
The British Government has until the 13th of January 2020 to legalise gay marriage. As a 28-day notice is needed before a wedding can take place, the first gay marriage in Northern Ireland should be celebrated around Valentine’s Day, in February 2020.
What was the legal regime so far?
So far, in Northern Ireland, women could only get an abortion if there was a “risk of real and serious adverse effect on their physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent”. This regime of exception went against the Abortion Act 1967 that makes abortion legal on several grounds up to 28 weeks in Britain. More than 1,000 Northern Irish women travel to Britain every year to get an abortion.
Same sex marriage was neither performed nor even recognized in Northern Ireland. Civil Partnership was granted to gay couple in 2005, and presented as an adequate alternative.
Photo and video by Shannon Takahashi
Watch down below the full interview of Sinn Féin’s MLA for East Derry, Caoimhe Archibald and a vox-pop made on Queen’s University’s campus (Belfast) on Monday Morning.