Northern Ireland’s ability to push through abortion reform and marriage equality legislation is stuck in a “political limbo” because of a lack of government, Amnesty International has said.
Last week marked two years since the Stormont power-sharing agreement collapsed. The late Martin McGuinness’s resignation on January 9, 2017, in effect, triggered the collapse of the executive and the Northern Ireland assembly after Sinn Féin refused to cooperate with the Democratic Unionist Party after the cash-for-ash scandal was publicised.
Repeated attempts have been made to restore power, but talks between the staunchly-conservative DUP and Sinn Féin have proved fruitless as they have been unable to agree on key issues, especially those related to progressive causes, such as abortion reform.
Last August, Northern Ireland became the region that had spent the longest time without a government, surpassing Belgium, which went for 541 days before forming a government in December 2011.
The Irish and British governments have both repeatedly raised concerns about the lack of political representation in Northern Ireland during such an important time for the region. Some ministers and elected officials have claimed that the North is losing out by not having anyone to represent its interests during Brexit.
The delay is preventing progress on human rights issues, Amnesty said. Outside of the disagreement over abortion reform – with Northern Ireland remaining the only part of the United Kingdom where abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances – Sinn Féin and the DUP refuse to agree on the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
Amnesty has called on the Westminster government to intervene and change the law marriage-equality law itself before the Northern Irish government is restored.
“For two years the people of Northern Ireland have had their rights trapped in political limbo as the Stormont crisis continues,” Patrick Corrigan, the Amnesty programme director for Northern Ireland, said. “The absence of a sitting assembly has blocked advancement on key human rights issues, leaving Northern Ireland far behind the rest of the UK.
“In Northern Ireland, same-sex couples still cannot legally marry, and women are subject to some of the most draconian and outdated abortion laws in the world. The UK government has the power and authority to legislate for change on these urgent human rights issues and cannot keep blaming the Stormont deadlock for inaction. Two years is already far too long. Our rights cannot be sacrificed any longer.”
Pro-choice politicians in Westminster and human rights groups have claimed that Theresa May has a responsibility to reform Northern Ireland’s anti-abortion law. In summer, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the North’s legislation was a breach of human rights.
In 2016, the UN’s main committee tasked with monitoring the human rights of women and girls said that even though Northern Ireland was devolved, the British government still had a responsibility to address the situation.
Simon Harris, Ireland’s health minister, had said the Irish government wants to find a way to help cover the cost for women from Northern Ireland. However, even though they can access the Republic’s new service, Northern Irish women must pay.