Dramatic debates on abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland

In early July, the Government introduced  a very short Bill to give it yet more time to try and restore the Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, which collapsed two and a half years ago. Its latest talks with the political parties began in May (earlier efforts having ended in failure) and seem to have made some progress, but current legislation does not provide for their continuation beyond the end of August.

The new Bill extends the period for discussion until 21 October. Though both the current Secretary of State, Mrs Karen Bradley, and politicians in Northern Ireland (especially those in Sinn Fein) deserve criticism for the continuing impasse, the need for such Bill is not seriously contested.

It will become law before the end of July, but in a form very different to that in which it started out. By overwhelming majorities in the Commons, clauses were inserted instructing the Government to make abortion generally  available in Northern Ireland where it has never been permitted (except in narrowly defined circumstances) and to extend same-sex marriage to the Province, if devolution has not been restored by 21 October.

The Bill was debated on three occasions in the Lords between 10 and 17 July. As in the Commons, passions ran high on the two additions with sharp differences being expressed over deeply held beliefs on both sides.

One of the principal issues was whether Parliament should change the law in these two highly sensitive areas for which responsibility had been devolved to Northern Ireland.

Alistair Lexden made his principal contribution on 17 July on the extension of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. He said: “I take a simple unionist view. People in Northern Ireland ought not to be deprived of this human right, which is now firmly established in Great Britain.” It was, he went on, entirely proper that action should be taken at Westminster  in the absence of devolution: “Before its collapse, the Northern Ireland Assembly had reached a majority view in favour of reform, and opinion polls in Northern Ireland show that public support for same-sex marriage is running at much the same level as in the rest of our country.”

He concluded by reminding the House that Parliament had taken decisive action in this area on a previous occasion: “ t was this Parliament that decriminalised homosexuality in Northern Ireland after a courageous Ulster Unionist, Jeffrey Dudgeon MBE, had brought a case at the European Court of Human Rights. That legislation in this Parliament came 15 years after gay consenting adults elsewhere had ceased to be treated as criminals. Let not gay people in Northern Ireland have to wait so long for the right to marry if that is their wish.”