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Northern Ireland: MPs have backed abortion and same-sex marriage rights

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Hollie Richardson
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Northern Ireland abortion laws: MPs vote for change

MPs have backed a move to extend abortion and same-sex marriage rights in Northern Ireland, but Conservative leadership hopeful Boris Johnson thinks it should remain a “devolved issue”. 

MPs have voted to change laws on abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

To quickly recap: currently in Northern Ireland, any termination of a pregnancy is illegal, with any person found to have broken it risking life imprisonment. Same-sex marriage is also illegal.

Despite campaigns to change these laws by backbench MPS and equality campaigners, prime minister Theresa May has previously called the abortion law a “devolved issue” to be dealt with by Northern Ireland. 

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However, Northern Ireland hasn’t had a devolved government since 2017, which is what led to these two significant votes in parliament on Tuesday (9 July).

Labour MP Stella Creasy proposed the amendment on abortion law after a long campaign, citing the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. This previously found that the UK is violating the human rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their ability to access abortion and forcing them to seek costly treatment abroad.

The results on both votes were pretty staggering. MPs backed the same-sex marriage amendment by 383 votes to 73, while the abortion amendment was backed 332 to 99.

But this doesn’t mean that these two laws will be changed overnight. They will only be legislated if Stormont’s devolved assembly isn’t restored by 21 October 2019. And both proposals are subject to the condition that a future assembly could overturn or amend the laws.

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Although Northern Ireland minister John Penrose warned MPs that both potential changes would be fraught with complications, he voted in favour of both amendments.

The historic votes were also put to Conservative MPs Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, who took part in a televised leadership debate on Tuesday evening as part of their battle to become prime minister.

While Hunt said he supported the moves, Johnson said it should remain a devolved issue.

“I think it’s a matter for the people of Northern Ireland and one of the most important reasons for getting the Stormont government back up and running,” said Johnson. 

This is particularly concerning, following the recent news that understanding issues surrounding women’s safety and welfare doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of the potential prime minister’s agenda. 

It’s also worth noting that Hunt recently reiterated his view that abortions should only be allowed for women up to 12 weeks after conception (although he did say he would not seek to change the law on it if he became prime minister).

“How much longer are the women of Northern Ireland expected to wait?” Creasy asked fellow MPs in the Commons. “How much more are they expected to suffer before we speak up – the best of what this place does – as human rights defenders, not human rights deniers?”

After the votes, she tweeted: “Thank you to everyone who today stood up for equality in Northern Ireland - whether for same sex marriage or abortion, today we have said everyone in the UK deserves to be treated as an equal. There’s a road to go yet but today a big step forward #TheNorthISNext #LoveEquality.”

Labour MP Conor McGee, who is originally from County Armagh, also described the movement on same-sex relationship rights a “fantastic victory”. 

“Having been let down so many times before,” continued, “LGBT people in Northern Ireland can now look forward to enjoying the same rights as everyone else in the rest of the UK and on the island on Ireland.

“I hope to see the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly restored and working by 21 October, so that they can take the decision to introduce equal marriage.” 

The next step is to pass the bill through the House of Lords for approval, where it is unlikely to be overturned. 

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