Last month, two new laws were passed for Northern Ireland. The laws did not originate in the Assembly; no Northern Irish party won an election with a manifesto proposing them; no referendum was held on them. Instead, Westminster MPs came up with the laws and passed them in July. The first redefines marriage, so that it will no longer be simply between a man and a woman.
The second redefines the legal status of unborn children, permitting them to be killed in the womb. It’s “the beginning of a new era”, tweeted Grainne Teggart of Amnesty International when Westminster’s laws were imposed on Northern Ireland last week. “We can now look forward to a more equal future.”
The Christian charity CARE Northern Ireland has described the new legal regime as permitting “abortion on request for any reason up to the point at which an unborn baby is capable of being born alive”. The charity estimates that thanks to Northern Ireland’s previous near-total abortion ban, around 100,000 people have been born who would not have survived a Westminster-style abortion law.
In theory, Northern Ireland has its own legislators for such momentous questions, under the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. But the agreement contains what has turned out to be an enormous loophole: the Northern Irish Executive only functions if the two biggest parties agree to take part in it. Since the two parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, are deadlocked by disagreements, the Executive has gone into a kind of hibernation, allowing Westminster to decide its future. Last week the DUP turned up at the Assembly and tried to pass blocking legislation, but Sinn Féin weren’t playing ball and the attempt collapsed. Westminster’s laws, then, will come into effect in March 2020.
Or will they? The DUP immediately said it is exploring further options, and the party’s Paul Givan has written to the Attorney General to discuss the legal situation. There may also be a further attempt to get the Executive running again. Mark Baillie, CARE’s policy officer, told the Catholic Herald: “Our understanding is that under the NI Act 1998, powers over Justice and Health would return to the NI Executive if devolution was restored. As a result, NI would once again have the opportunity to determine what its laws would be.”
To judge from the DUP’s remarks, while there will be some attempt to resist the abortion law, same-sex marriage is much less likely to face a challenge. The recent experience of the rest of the UK suggests that redefining marriage leads rapidly to confusion on other points, not least the difference between male and female.
A huge social upheaval is coming to Northern Ireland – and without a single vote being cast.