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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Will Northern Ireland catch up with the rest of the UK at last?

Despite being a strong supporter of devolution, I actually have no problem with the House of Commons voting to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK on same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

As the Guardian reports, both votes came at the culmination of long campaigns by backbench MPs, who said the government’s argument that the changes could only be made by the devolved Northern Irish government was defunct, given it has been suspended amid political deadlock since the start of 2017.

In fact, many of those arguing against the two clauses last night, on the grounds that they would drive “a coach and horses through the principle of devolution”, belong to one of the parties responsible for the current deadlock. It seemed to me that for some the argument was not so much one of protecting devolved rights, as using that as an excuse to stop much-needed social reforms.

And it is not as if last night's votes do undermine the devolution settlement. There will only be automatic change in the law within three months if the devolved government remains stalled. If and when the Northern Ireland’s executive is revived, it can then approve or repeal the measure.

The key argument for me, on this particular point, was made by the same-sex marriage clause's sponsor, the Labour MP Conor McGinn, who said that deferred or delayed rights are rights denied. The people of Northern Ireland have waited long enough for equality with the UK mainland. They should not have to wait a further indefinite period while their politicians get their act together.

And who knows, last night's vote may be the catalyst that gets the parties back around the table to finally restore the power-sharing executive.
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