Hannah Patterson discusses the ramifications of Westminster intervening in Northern Ireland
When the news broke that Westminster had decided to reform Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion and equal marriage, the world celebrated: but many of us who are from Northern Ireland had reservations.
I would like to make it clear right now that I fully believe these laws should be reformed and I think it should have happened years ago. But the fact that the decision was made in Westminster, and not in the Northern Irish government, Stormont, is more than a little unsettling.
For those who don’t know, part of the peace process to end the fighting in Northern Ireland was establishing devolved power (Scotland, your devolved power argument was so 1998). This process allowed Northern Ireland to control domestic issues without relying on votes from Westminster. However, this is Northern Ireland we are talking about, so nothing can ever be simple, and so what is now known as the “concern clause” was born. This means that bills in Northern Ireland must have cross-community support, i.e from both unionists and nationalists. If either party states that they do not support the bill, it can be vetoed. This has been the case with both the issue of equal marriage and abortion rights. The staunchly Christian DUP have blocked both of these bills several times, despite 76% of Northern Irish citizens saying they wanted equal marriage in their country in 2018. A somewhat less impressive, but still majority of people (65%) also thought that abortion should no longer be a crime.
Unfortunately, by the time 2018 came around, there was not much the DUP or anyone else could do about this issue. In January 2017, the two main parties in Northern Ireland, DUP and Sinn Fein, were brought down by a “breakdown of trust” (I’m as confused as you are) and essentially decided to stop coming to work. If this sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. For over two years, Northern Ireland has had no functioning government. Take a moment to let it sink in, folks. No one has been showing up for work for the past two and a half years and, incredibly, no one seems bothered. Until now, it seems. However, it should be noted that there are some MPs who are passionately invested, and don’t deserve to be painted with this brush.
Westminster passed the bills on abortion and equal marriage with one very interesting caveat. The bills will come into effect on 21 October 2019, unless Stormont reinstates itself and vetoes the bill itself. This means that in order to stop the two bills they have been vehemently against from the beginning, the DUP must sacrifice their ideals and go back to working with the nationalists they swore up and down they could no longer trust.
This must be a massive slap in the face for the DUP who, in 2017, teamed up with the Conservative party to give PM Theresa May the majority she needed to remain in power. Having finally taken a front seat in Westminster politics to have it so damningly thrown in your face is a long awaited piece of justice for the DUP.
But you have to ask yourself, why now? Mainland UK has been largely apathetic to the governmental issues of Northern Ireland for many years now, and it seems to me that their sudden interest might have more to do with getting Stormont back up and running again rather than a sudden wave of compassion for the outdated land across the way. In the current political climate (read: shitshow) that is the UK, is this a desperate grasp to get Stormont back in play before Brexit passes and all hell breaks loose? Certainly, the dates line up with the newly proposed no-deal exit promised. Could it be that Westminster is trying to bait the DUP back into Stormont only to leave them to deal with the implications a no-deal Brexit will have on Northern Ireland, or is this simply a step backwards, away from home rule, meaning the loss of the devolved powers that we fought so hard for? Either way, the outcome is unsure and like so much of the future of Northern Ireland, troubling. Draw your own conclusion from what I have said, but I feel like this move by Westminster could have more selfish roots than we originally believed.