Same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland: latest developments

The purpose of the Northern Ireland (Formation of Executive) Bill, currently before Parliament, is to extend the period for forming an Executive under s.1(1) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 until 21 October 2019, with the possibility of a further extension to 13 January 2020. During the committee stage of the Bill, the Committee of the whole House voted – at least in principle – to extend both same-sex marriage and access to abortion to Northern Ireland: you can read the debate here.

The Committee voted by 383 to 73 to add New Clause 1 (Marriage of same-sex couples in Northern Ireland), moved by Conor McGinn (St Helens North) (Lab), to the Bill. as follows:

“(1) The Secretary of State must make regulations to change the law relating to marriage in Northern Ireland to provide that marriage between same-sex couples is lawful.

(2) Regulations under this section must be in force no later than 21 October 2019, subject to subsections (3) and (4).

(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (1)—

(a) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament;

(b) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

(4) If a Northern Ireland Executive is formed before the regulations under this section come into force, any regulations made under this section and any extant obligations arising under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect.”

In a subsequent vote, the Committee agreed to New Clause 10 (International obligations), as follows:

“(1) In accordance with the requirements of section 26 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 regarding international obligations, the Secretary of State must make regulations by statutory instrument to give effect to the recommendations of the Report of the Inquiry concerning the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

(2) Regulations under this section must come into force by 21 October 2019, subject to subsections (3) and (4).

(3) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (1)—

(a) must be laid before both Houses of Parliament;

(b) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

(4) If a Northern Ireland Executive is formed before 21 October 2019, any extant obligations arising under subsection (1) shall cease to have effect.”

New Clause 10 was moved by Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab) and was agreed to by 332 votes to 99. In effect, it would require the Westminster Government to address the current situation in Northern Ireland under which abortion law is largely based on ss.58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

Before the votes, the Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, John Penrose, told the House that, despite the Government’s misgivings about the drafting and timescales in the New Clauses, it was

“a free-vote issue, so if this passes a vote it will go into law and become part of primary legislation. Ministers would be bound by it and Government would proceed. People should be aware that many of the same concerns that I expressed about new clause 1 apply to new clause 10, so there may be issues”.

The Bill, as amended in Committee of the whole House, was read the third time and passed: it now goes to the Lords.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland: latest developments" in Law & Religion UK, 9 July 2019, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2019/07/09/same-sex-marriage-and-abortion-in-northern-ireland-latest-developments/

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