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9 July 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:59pm

A new era for Northern Ireland means new challenges for Westminster

By Patrick Maguire

The Commons has voted to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland if devolution does not return within three months, in a historic move that could have profound ramifications for the next prime minister’s relationship with the DUP. 

some 383 MPs backed an amendment to emergency Northern Ireland legislation, tabled by the Armagh-born Labour MP Conor McGinn, that will compel ministers to extend equal marriage to the province if a power-sharing executive is not restored by 21 October. Just 73 voted against. 

A separate amendment from McGinn’s colleague Stella Creasy, that will force the government to liberalise Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws so that they comply with human rights law, passed by by 332 votes to 99.

As expected, the DUP’s 10 MPs were among those who trooped through the no lobby on both divisions. On marriage equality and abortion, the government’s confidence and supply partners are officially in favour of the status quo – that is, maintaining the legal bar on both.

With that in mind, one would expect this afternoon’s votes to sour the relationship between the Tories – many of whose MPs and ministers backed both proposals – and the party on whom it depends for a majority. But the DUP’s parliamentary party will be smarting for rather different reasons this evening. 

Despite their pantomime villain status in the imaginations of many at Westminster, there is a nuance to the DUP leadership’s position on equal marriage that is often missed. 

Senior figures within the party – and particularly its rising stars at Stormont – increasingly speak as if its legalisation is an inevitability. Spokespeople sent out to spin the surge for cross-community parties in May’s local election stressed uninvited that there was a Stormont majority ready to make the decision the Commons took in its absence this evening, if only a deal to restore power-sharing could be struck. 

What has really angered those who actually run the DUP, rather than the unreconstructed Paisleyites and Free Presbyterians at its grassroots, is less the result of this evening’s votes than the votes themselves. Their calls for ministers to govern Northern Ireland directly from Westminster have been repeatedly ignored despite their parliamentary influence. They feel that tonight’s amendments will usher in an era of “a la carte direct rule”. One senior DUP MP puts it thus: “There are scores of important issues that need to be progressed, so they either legislate for everything or nothing – not cherry pick while our hospitals and schools swing in the wind.”

But the very existence of the legislation that was amended this evening – which postpones the deadline for a new power-sharing deadline for another three months – suggests the government will do just that, which makes some sort of confrontation on devolution between the next prime minister and the DUP inevitable come October (to say nothing of Brexit). That row is the last thing a prime minister with no majority and limited parliamentary bandwidth needs. Ditto direct rule itself.

The only surefire way to avert one, of course, would involve restoring Stormont before then. In that respect this evening’s votes could ultimately work to the DUP’s advantage. What killed a devolution deal last February was the opposition of its grassroots to a package of legislation giving legal protections to the Irish language. There is a chance – albeit a slim one – that Arlene Foster might be able to sell a near-identical package to a recalcitrant party as the lesser of two evils, given that rejecting it again will ultimately mean same-sex marriage and abortion are legalised.

By the same token, however, there is even less of an incentive for Sinn Fein to restore an assembly that could veto marriage equality – one of the issues the late Martin McGuinness chose to highlight in the resignation letter that began an impasse that is now into its 30th month. It’s a paradox that will cause problems for Labour, too, despite their support for both amendments. How do you call for the speedy restoration of devolution, and criticise the government’s handling of talks, when an executive and assembly could block the reforms you support? 

While the questions that women and the LGBT community in Northern Ireland have long been asking have finally been answered this evening, Westminster has a new set of political challenges to contend with.

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