While most of Northern Ireland was fast asleep on Monday night, a historic moment came to pass. From midnight, laws governing same-sex marriage and family planning access were fundamentally altered.
The House of Commons in the UK can now legislate to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland as early as January 2020 — for weddings to take place from Valentine’s Day next year. Meanwhile, access to abortion services was immediately decriminalised, with a view to provide local services from April 2020.
The change represents major gains in LGBTQ rights and gender equality in Northern Ireland, and sets a timeline to realign Northern Ireland’s policies on these issues with the rest of the UK.
Northern Ireland — unlike the Republic of Ireland, which is a sovereign country — is a jurisdiction of the UK, but was largely self-governed for many years. In 2017, its government collapsed due to disagreements between political parties, and has not been reinstated since.
It meant that Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn, Labour MPs who sit in Westminster, could add some crucial amendments to a UK government bill connected to the failed assembly. Their changes legislated for same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland, setting a deadline of Oct. 21 for the devolved government to reform before the laws changed automatically.
There was a last-minute attempt by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to delay the changes by recalling the assembly for the first time in three years, but efforts deteriorated after a failure to elect a speaker that everybody could agree on.
“The beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland – one in which we’re free from oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and healthcare,” declared Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager.
BREAKING: Abortion was just decriminalized in Northern Ireland, and same-sex marriage will become legal next year.— AJ+ (@ajplus) October 21, 2019
It was the only place in the UK where both were illegal, but the UK govt set tonight as a deadline to bring its laws in line with England, Scotland and Wales. pic.twitter.com/YIfxepclLQ
Activists have also long campaigned for changes to the country's sexual and reproductive health laws.
According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), policies that restrict access to sexual and reproductive health information and services disproportionately impact girls and women living in poverty, and can contribute to worse education and health outcomes.
Previously, abortion was only legal in Northern Ireland when a mother’s life was in danger, or when there was a risk of serious, permanent damage to a mother’s mental or physical health.
Women could not access this form of reproductive medical service in cases of rape, incest, or fetal anomalies — and could have faced life imprisonment for doing so. But the change in law immediately protects women from prosecution.
Now, LGBTQ advocates and gender equality campaigners who championed marriage equality and family planning in Northern Ireland are celebrating.
"I am thrilled that finally my friends and colleagues can marry without it being a crime in this country,” 24-year-old Alisha Rooney told CNN. "I am thrilled that women now have the choice with what they can do with their own bodies."
And it's official!!! Abortion and Same Sex marriage in Northern Ireland has been decriminalised.— Hazel Chu (@hazechu) October 21, 2019
156 year old outdated law finally no longer in effect.
A massive massive well done and thank you to all those who campaigned. You're all rockstars ❤️❤️❤️#NorthIsNow
Words cannot describe this euphoria felt across Northern Ireland tonight 🏳️🌈💜 FINALLY we are moving into the 21st century and celebrating that LOVE IS LOVE no matter your gender or sexual orientation 🌈💜 #LoveIsLove#EqualMarriage#northisnowpic.twitter.com/kewxrb5kMG— 🎃 𝕿𝖍𝖊 𝕯𝖊𝖗𝖕𝖋𝖆𝖈𝖊 𝕲𝖎𝖗𝖑 🎃 (@BANGWOOL_PD) October 21, 2019
It’s a historic day for Northern Ireland.— Siobhán Fenton (@SiobhanFenton) October 21, 2019
New laws legalising abortion and same-sex marriage come into force at midnight tonight.
NI currently has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the world and is the only part of the UK or Ireland where LGBT couples can’t marry