Northern Ireland: Not “I do”, but “I might…”

The House of Commons has voted overwhelmingly to introduce same-sex marriage – and relax the law on abortion – in Northern Ireland.

It’s not as simple as it has been painted in some headlines though: the change does not come into effect yet.

Instead it will await the latest round of attempts to reintroduce devolved government in Northern Ireland – which has been suspended for three years now after the DUP and Sinn Fein failed to reach any agreement on power sharing at Stormont, following a snap election triggered by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

Same-sex marriage was legislated back in 2013/14 for Wales, England and (separately) Scotland, but Northern Ireland is still stuck on same-sex civil partnerships as the only option for many couples.

With law reform due this year to open up civil partnerships to mixed-sex couples, and same-sex marriage won through an overwhelming referendum result in the Republic of Ireland, the North looks more and more peculiar.  Indeed on maps of where same-sex marriage is legal, Northern Ireland now stands out against the tide of Western Europe, an isolated pocket reminding people how we used to live.

October 21 will be the big decision day – if the devolved government has not been restored, the changes will be pushed through by Westminster.  However if an agreement between the parties has at last been reached Westminster will drop the measures on account of them being devolved matters for Stormont to decide for itself.

That is unlikely to be the end of the story though – prior to the snap election, the Northern Ireland Assembly had voted on the question of same-sex marriage several times, with the more recent votes supporting the change. The DUP blocked the change from coming into law using the “petition of concern” power that they and Sinn Fein have as the largest sectarian parties: it was widely criticised as a misuse of that measure.  Sinn Fein support the change and they may demand same-sex marriage legislation as part of the terms of forming a government with the DUP.

So hold off the champagne til October – when we will either have long overdue reforms to the law in Northern Ireland, or the resumption of devolved democracy. Or – just maybe – both.