(Reuters) – Campaigners who fought for decades to end Northern Ireland’s same sex-marriage ban, and restrictions on abortion, prepared today for a momentous change to the laws on both at the stroke of midnight.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that does not allow same-sex marriage. Also, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, laws in Northern Ireland forbid abortion, except where a mother’s life is at risk, bans that have been upheld by the region’s block of conservative politicians.
But an overwhelming vote by British lawmakers in July, to compel the government in London to overhaul the laws if Belfast’s devolved executive had not been restored by October 21 [is due to take effect].
Advocacy groups have planned a number of events to usher in the changes.
“We are not going to stick with the guilt and the shame any longer. Tomorrow the law changes in this place, and for the first time in Northern Ireland, women will be free,” Pro-choice campaigner Dawn Purvis told a public meeting in Belfast.
“Free to choose if, when and how many children they will have in the care of health-care professionals. This is a very emotional day for many here.”
Abortion rights were long opposed in Northern Ireland, by religious conservatives in both the Protestant community that supports continued British rule and the Catholic community that favours union with the traditionally Catholic Irish Republic.
Pressure has mounted, however, to change the Victorian-era laws in recent years, particularly after the [..]Irish Republic voted overwhelmingly last year to repeal a similarly restrictive ban, demonstrating a stark change in attitudes on an island once known for its religious conservatism.
If a new devolved government is not formed by midnight, abortion will be decriminalised, beginning a consultation on what the framework for services should look like, which is due to be finalised and approved by March 2020.
Opinion has also changed on same-sex marriage. But despite opinion polls showing most in the region in favour, previous attempts to follow the Irish Republic in legalising it have been blocked by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), using a special veto intended to prevent discrimination towards one community over another.
It will take the British parliament until mid-January to bring in the new legislation, setting up February 14, 2020 – Valentine’s Day – as the first opportunity for same-sex couples to marry, once they give the required 28-days’ notice.