Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Equality comes to Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is the Alabama of the UK: a backwards region where women and gay people are denied fundamental rights. But Westminster has just decided to fix that:

MPs have voted resoundingly to extend same-sex marriage and access to abortion to Northern Ireland, bringing the region into line with the rest of the UK on the two significant social issues.

The two historic votes, arriving within little more than a quarter of an hour of each other, were greeted ecstatically by equalities campaigners. With ministers promising to respect the results, they could have vital repercussions for people in Northern Ireland.


The changes came via amendments to an otherwise technical government bill connected to budgets and elections for the devolved assembly. In the first amendment, tabled by the Labour MP Conor McGinn, a longstanding campaigner for equal marriage in Northern Ireland, the Commons voted 383 to 73 to extend it to the region.

Its good news, and yet I'm also disquieted, because this vote violates fundamental UK constitutional norms. Northern Ireland has a devolved administration, and marriage equality and abortion rights sits squarely within that government's jurisdiction. Westminster overriding devolved administrations and legislating for them in their areas of competence without their consent is Not A Good Thing. Instead, it just seems like more odious English colonialism, no matter how well-intentioned.

And on the other hand: thanks to the DUP's antics, Northern Ireland hasn't had a government for the past two and a half years, and Westminster is having to legislate for them anyway out of necessity in order to ensure things keep working. But this goes well beyond keeping things ticking over, and its part of a disturbing trend of Westminster overstepping the constitutional mark and purporting to legislate for devolved regions (e.g. self-governing overseas territories and the Channel Islands on money laundering).

And on the gripping hand: if Northern Ireland doesn't like this, they can always declare independence, or unite with the Republic of Ireland (which has both same-sex marriage and abortion now). Or just stop pissing about, get their devolved parliament working again, and repeal it. Except they won't be able to, because there's in fact a parliamentary majority at Stormont for marriage equality, and the only thing which kept it illegal was the special rights of Ulster bigots under the Good Friday Agreement. So, this law probably isn't going anywhere, and the bigots are just going to have to get used to it.