Ministers will attempt to force emergency Northern Ireland legislation through the Commons in the space of a day next week, in a move critics allege is an attempt to block a cross-party effort to legalise equal marriage in the province.
On Monday the government will seek to pass all stages of a bill, introduced this evening, that will further delay the statutory August deadline for a fresh Stormont election.
Introducing Northern Ireland bills as emergency legislation – a practice for which ministers were criticised last year – severely limits time for debate and scope for amendments.
The time allotted to such legislation is usually agreed with opposition whips. Labour sources, however, say their Tory counterparts did not secure agreement through the usual channels before introducing the bill during this evening’s adjournment debate.
The emergency timetable means MPs will have less time for debate and scrutiny on a number of contentious areas where the government is at risk of defeat: abortion, same-sex marriage, and the compensation of survivors of institutional abuse. It would also spare the Conservative party a damaging fight both with the DUP, its confidence and supply partners, on the future of devolution, and within its own ranks. Penny Mordaunt, the Defence Secretary and Equalities Minister, backed reform of equal marriage and abortion law by Westminster this morning in a departure from the government’s official line.
A cross-party group led by the Labour MP Conor McGinn announced it would amend the bill to extend equal marriage to Northern Ireland in three months should Stormont remained mothballed yesterday. Labour believe that the government’s decision to publish the bill tomorrow and attempt to pass it in its entirety on Monday, however, makes doing so – and any other attempts to amend the bill – much more difficult. One opposition official accused ministers of “pulling a fast one”.
Labour, other opposition parties and rebel Conservative MPs who have put their name to the plan will instead now have to defeat the government’s programme motion – the bill’s formal timetable – if they are to stand any chance of using the legislation as a vehicle for introducing marriage equality, which would almost certainly pass on the free vote Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, promised MPs at the dispatch box today and in a written answer last February. The government lost a vote on a similar amendment that aimed, ultimately without success, to force Bradley into legalising same-sex marriage and abortion last October by a majority of 90.
McGinn, who grew up in Co Armagh, said the government had put itself “on the wrong side of history” by introducing the bill as emergency legislation. “Rather than allowing its MPs a free vote as promised, the Government is now actively – and disgracefully – blocking any attempt to introduce equal marriage,” he told the New Statesman. “They have put themselves on the wrong side of history, and against LGBT rights. I know that MPs across the House will be outraged. I hope our Parliamentary cross-party coalition for equal marriage will stand up and be counted on Monday.”
Government sources reject Labour’s interpretation, however, and say they expect amendments on equal marriage and abortion to be selected. They instead argue that the bill’s limited scope, rather than its timetabling, is what will prevent its use for the legalisation of equal marriage. “The McGinn amendment would compel the Secretary of State to legislate for something unrelated to the provisions of the bill,” an insider said.