MPs have voted to force the government to liberalise access to abortion and allow same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland if devolution is not restored.
Gay marriage is illegal in the north of Ireland, while terminations are only allowed in cases where a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a danger of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.
“Our future got a little brighter today”
The votes were held as part of House of Commons measures aimed at keeping Northern Ireland public services running, two and a half years after devolved powersharing collapsed.
Campaigner John O’Doherty said: “Our future got a little brighter today and we hope that LGBT people across Northern Ireland will wake up tomorrow feeling more hopeful for the future we all want to see.”
MPs voted by a majority of 310, 383 to 73, to legalise same-sex marriage if a new Stormont Executive is not formed by October.
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A proposal aiming to extend abortion access was also approved – 332 votes to 99.
The issues are areas of significant dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein, who have struggled for years to reconcile their differences and resurrect the institutions at Stormont.
“All love is equal”
O’Doherty, who is director of the Rainbow Project and member of the Love Equality civic campaign, said: “Parliament has always had the power to legislate for marriage equality in Northern Ireland and we are glad the House of Commons has seen sense and voted to give people in Northern Ireland the same freedoms enjoyed by everyone else in these islands.
“All love is equal and we are proud to celebrate this achievement with our community, friends, colleagues and allies from across these islands.”
The DUP and religious leaders believe marriage is between a man and woman and civil partnerships are an option for same-sex couples.
Sinn Fein and a coalition of civic society activists believe the change is an issue of equality and human rights.
An issue of “women’s human rights”
Access to abortion is also a major touchstone issue in the north of Ireland, with large numbers of women travelling to Great Britain for terminations, and mass rallies for and against medical provision at home.
Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: “We are extremely grateful to all those MPs from across the UK who made clear that they would no longer turn a blind eye to the injustice and suffering faced by the women of Northern Ireland.
“The Government has been told repeatedly by the Supreme Court, the United Nations Committee against Torture, and the UN Committee for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women that the current law – which forces women to travel to England for the healthcare they need or risk prosecution and punishment by using pills bought online – breaches women’s human rights.”
Celebrations in the LGBTQI+ community
Activists gathered on Tuesday to watch proceedings at Westminster. Amid the celebrations, there was also a note of poignancy, as friends of murdered journalist Lyra McKee reflected on what the moment would have meant to the vocal LGBTQI+ advocate.
Cara McCann and her civil partner Amanda McGurk, who had a front-row seat as the debate was shown on a big screen at the Rainbow Project LGBTQI+ advocacy organisation in Belfast, hope to be one of the first same-sex couples to get married in the north of Ireland.
“I’m absolutely overjoyed,” said McCann.
“This is the closest we have ever come to achieving marriage equality in the north of Ireland – it’s a good day for equality.”
McCann, the director of HereNI, a group that supports lesbians and bisexual women, added: “Our community has suffered because of these inequalities, and hopefully we will be on an equal footing on this issue to our peers and our family and friends.
“It’s equality for us, but also for our children as well, this impacts on our kids as well, so they will be treated as equals in the near future too.”
McGurk, a gender violence worker for Cara-Friend youth organisation, described the vote as a “fantastic result”.
“We think we’ll be going for an upgrade from our civil partnership,” she said.
“We may be at City Hall in our wedding dresses in the next few months, but time will tell.”
As events in the House of Commons drew to a close, campaigners headed for city centre bars to continue the celebrations.
John O’Doherty, who toasted the occasion with his husband Martin Toland, said: “It’s an absolutely historic day and so pleased to see this substantial move towards achieving equal marriage for the people of Northern Ireland.
“It’s been eight years since this campaign started, it’s been five years since the introduction in England and Wales – LGBT people in Northern Ireland have waited long enough.
“We have another three months to wait, assuming the Assembly doesn’t get up and running, but this is the most excited we have been and the most positive outlook we have had for this campaign.”
One of those who has been a prominent supporter of same-sex marriage in the region is Sara Canning, the partner of Lyra McKee, who was shot dead in Derry in April.
Fergal McFerran, who knew McKee, said: “It is incredibly poignant that today is a day that I’m sure Lyra and her partner Sara would have been looking forward to and it’s incredibly sad that she’s not here to see the progress that has been made, but I think the LGBT community as a whole take inspiration from her every day.”
He said the vote had made for a “fantastic day”.
“It is a huge celebration for the LGBT community but also for Northern Ireland as a whole,” he said.
“Time and time again it has been shown that people in the majority support the introduction of marriage equality in Northern Ireland.
“Today Westminster has rightly intervened to ensure that will be the case in three months time if the Assembly isn’t back up and running.”
Alexa Moore, director of Transgender NI, described the vote as “monumental”.
“It’s absolutely fantastic that equal marriage has essentially been legalised in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“It is unfortunate that it had to go through Westminster and didn’t come through our own Assembly, but unfortunately that is the way it went.
“There is still a lot of work to be done and we in the LGBT sector acknowledge that and we are looking forward to fighting the next fight.”