What The Latest Vote On N Ireland's Same-Sex Marriage & Abortion Laws Really Mean

by Lauren Sharkey
harles McQuillan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Tuesday, MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of legalising two hugely important human rights in Northern Ireland: same-sex marriage and abortion. But the positive result does not mean both of these acts are now legal. In fact, the process may be lengthier than people realise. So exactly when will abortion and same-sex marriage be extended to Northern Ireland?

This week's vote saw two amendments proposed to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Bill. Both were tabled by Labour MPs, who have been attempting to change the law for years, as the Guardian reports. Conor McGinn was responsible for the same-sex marriage clause while Stella Creasy was behind the decriminalisation of abortion stance.

Hundreds of MPs backed both amendments, with 383 supporting same-sex marriage (versus 73 opposing) and 332 supporting abortion (versus 99 opposing). Currently, Northern Ireland — which has the power to decide its own laws in certain areas — is the only place in the UK that does not permit either. People living there are still bound by legislation such as the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act that criminalises people who get an abortion and people who help them. Abortions are only allowed in extreme circumstances in whic a person's life or health is at serious risk, reports the Independent.

But these legal situations will not be altered by a simple political vote. As the BBC reports, both amendments came with an additional clause that stated that Westminster would only implement the laws if Northern Ireland's Parliament, Stormont, was not up and running by Oct. 21. There has been no government in the country since January 2017, the BBC reports, after a dispute erupted between the two main political parties: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin.

If Stormont is restored by this date, it effectively means that nothing will change. McGinn said he hoped that this would be the case, the BBC reports, so that Northern Ireland's own politicians could push the same-sex marriage and abortion legislation through, but there is no guarantee. And even if no functioning government exists by Oct. 21 and Westminster implements the proposed legislation, everything could be overturned by a future Stormont, the BBC reports.

It's also not likely that anything major, save for the potential reopening of Stormont, will happen in October. Per the BBC, John Penrose, the Northern Ireland Office minister, said that "time constraints" may signal a delay of the laws. Any law backed by the House of Commons must still make its way through the House of Lords. There is also a possibility that Northern Irish MPs could ask to overturn the proposals, although the number of yes votes means this is pretty unlikely.

According to the Belfast Telegraph, the DUP believes that Sinn Féin — a party that supports both reforms — has little reason to ensure that Stormont is restored within the next few months. But Sinn Féin has said that, while having Westminster decide on Northern Irish matters isn't its preference, the UK government had a responsibility "to deliver on rights if the devolved institutions were not working."

There is still a lot of hope that the amendments will be put in place as soon as possible. And the recent vote shouldn't go unnoticed. But, although the figures are good news for the people of Northern Ireland, the path to achieving equality isn't over just yet.