Northern Ireland's citizens should have equal human rights to the rest of the UK. That's why I'm working to change this

The dysfunction of politicians should not mean the disavowal of the rights of the people of Northern Ireland

Stella Creasy
Tuesday 23 October 2018 13:52 BST
Stella Creasy leads emergency debate in Parliament on Northern Ireland abortion laws

If not now, then when? That is the question many in Northern Ireland are asking about access to basic human rights for all citizens.

It may be 2018 but in Northern Ireland laws written over 150 years ago in Westminster remain untouched to devastating effect.

While women in England have had access to abortion for 50 years, and women in Ireland are about to have access to abortion after their historic campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment, those in Northern Ireland do not. Consequently, in recent months women’s homes have been raided for abortion pills and a mother is being prosecuted for getting abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter. Due to historic legislation which still remains on the statute book, in Northern Ireland if you are raped and become pregnant then seek a termination, you could face a longer prison sentence than your attacker.

Abortion rights are not the only area where Northern Ireland remains stuck in the past. For same sex couples who marry overseas, their union is simply not recognised in Northern Ireland. Despite being legal in France, Luxembourg, Germany, Australia as well as in England, Scotland and Wales, love in Northern Ireland is policed by the state. Laws tell gay people their relationship should not be seen nor heard – something no one else would accept and neither should they.

But despite the detriment these situations cause to the everyday lives of the citizens they represent, the UK government still refuses to act. They say these issues are a matter for the Northern Irish Assembly – but are also passing emergency legislation to give civil servants the powers to run departments there because the Assembly isn’t functioning. The dysfunction of politicians should not mean the disavowal of the rights of the people of Northern Ireland.

That’s why Conor McGinn and I have tabled an amendment to this emergency legislation to hold secretary of state Karen Bradley accountable for her failure to protect the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland.

Neither of the current restrictive laws on abortion or same sex marriage find favour with the people of Northern Ireland, according to opinion polls. Yet instead of listening to the majority of people, politicians stubbornly hold back change, with the DUP demanding Theresa May does not act on these issues as a condition of their partnership in Westminster.

Repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 would not bring abortion to Northern Ireland, but it would enable the people of Northern Ireland to write their own laws on this issue. So too repealing the sections of the Matrimonial Causes (NI) Order 1978, which demands one man and one woman when it comes to marriage, would also enable the people of Northern Ireland to set their own rules about such unions without being tied to antiquated UK laws. In this way, the calls to action respect devolution – but don’t delay the changes the public in Northern Ireland wish to see.

Currently, 28 women a week make the journey to England and Wales for an abortion from Northern Ireland, a journey our own human rights courts have called “cruel and inhuman”, calling upon the government to act. Banning safe and legal abortion in Northern Ireland doesn’t prevent abortions, it just puts women at risk as they take pills bought online or have to find the money to travel.

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A total of 84 couples in Northern Ireland had a civil partnership in 2016, unable to have a marriage. So too, not having equal marriage doesn’t stop people falling in love – it just demeans all of us as we treat those who love someone of the same gender as second class citizens.

Theresa May has always said these are issues of conscience; that MPs should have a free vote on such matters. It should indeed be on the conscience of every UK MP that, due to laws written in Westminster, citizens in Northern Ireland face human rights restrictions.

So far, nearly 80 MPs from across both Conservative, Lib Dem, Labour, Green and Plaid Cymru have put their name to this amendment to show they will not forget the people of Northern Ireland. We ask when citizens of our country can have equal human rights, and the answer can’t be, “when it suits the DUP”. The answer Westminster needs to give is now.

Stella Creasy is a Labour MP for Walthamstow

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