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Newton Emerson: Time for DUP to accept defeat on gay marriage and abortion

Abortion and same-sex marriage not do-or-die issues for unionist electorate

The DUP got what it asked for in the House of Commons on Tuesday, both figuratively and literally.

Figuratively because two years of frustration with the unionist party’s antics over Brexit and the confidence-and-supply arrangement erupted across the Commons. Labour amendments on extending same-sex marriage and abortion to Northern Ireland were backed by almost a third of Conservative MPs, plus the Scottish Nationalists who had initially accepted the DUP’s argument that Westminster was breaching the terms of devolution. More than a third of Conservatives did not vote. Unionists demanded support from their Tory partners and conspicuously did not receive it.

As for the DUP literally getting what it asked for, the truth is the amendments do not strictly breach devolution. They require the government to have legislation in force should Stormont not be restored by the new deadline for statutory talks of October 21st.

The implication of talks failing is that direct rule would have to be introduced, which is a long-standing DUP demand. The government and the Commons have repeatedly indicated they will extend same-sex marriage and abortion should the relevant powers return to London.

The DUP's way out of this escalating series of deadlines is simply to admit it has lost, as it plainly has

So in theory, the amendments merely add a statement of intent to a statement of the obvious – putting Westminster in charge would bring in Westminster’s social policies. Civil partnerships were introduced to Northern Ireland in 2005 during the last period of direct rule.


In practice, however, timing is everything.

If same-sex marriage and abortion had been enacted this week, it would have removed two Sinn Féin demands from the talks agenda and made the DUP’s road back to Stormont easier.

Instead, legislation has been presented as a post-dated threat. This apparently motivates the DUP to reach a deal with Sinn Féin so it can block same-sex marriage and abortion via the Assembly’s veto mechanism.

Sinn Féin, by contrast, cannot accept such a deal or perhaps any deal by the October deadline. Last year, it reached a draft agreement with the DUP that did not address same-sex marriage and abortion, to the dismay of many of its supporters. Letting the DUP actively block imminent reform would be unsellable.

Has Labour accidentally killed devolution? No. Missing the October deadline does not necessarily trigger direct rule. The law passed this week creating the deadline allows a one-off extension to January.

The same approach was used in a law last year enabling talks up to next month.

What Labour has killed is this meaningless cycle of supposedly one-off laws and emergency extensions. There is now a real deadline in October, with real consequences. However, the extension to January remains, allowing Stormont parties to digest a new environment where same-sex marriage and abortion have been imposed. The prospect of further laws and extensions also remains, but with the knowledge that Westminster could intervene again – possibly on an Irish language Act, which the British government has a commitment to introduce in the absence of devolution.

The DUP’s way out of this escalating series of deadlines is simply to admit it has lost, as it plainly has. This should not be a particularly agonising experience.

Neither issue at stake is a do-or-die question for the unionist electorate – a majority probably backs same-sex marriage and abortion while only a small fraction are strongly opposed, with no other party to vote for.

The DUP has been inching towards acceptance of same-sex marriage, running its first openly gay candidate this year.

The party can tell supporters it regrets having these matters addressed over its head, but as a result it no longer has to horse-trade over them in talks, and can concentrate its negotiating leverage on issues unionists are exercised by, most notably an Irish language Act.

Secondary legislation

Facing a clear defeat, the obvious strategy is to concede it and move on. There is nothing to be gained by stonewalling until October. Even the DUP’s ultimate threat of withdrawing co-operation and paralysing the government would be futile – the amendments are to be enacted by secondary legislation, requiring no further Commons vote.

So the party that once demanded 'sackcloth and ashes' from Sinn Féin must take a gulp of humble pie

After October, the DUP would be fighting its lost cause in the middle of the Brexit deadline and patience with it in London would be truly exhausted. If it drags its heels until January and Westminster starts looking at other outstanding Stormont issues, there will be genuine disquiet among the unionist electorate.

So the party that once demanded “sackcloth and ashes” from Sinn Féin must take a gulp of humble pie. It has not had to do this for a generation. Since losing the Belfast Agreement referendum in 1998 it has always got its own way, one way or another, and gives every appearance of finding anything else unimaginable. It is too early to say if the protests it was bound to make this week were tokenistic or herald a protracted tantrum. But in the next few months we will see the true mettle of the DUP’s discipline, pragmatism and leadership.