Susan McKay: At last, we are breaking free of DUP’s dystopia
Disgraceful absence of Stormont Executive paves way for breakthrough on human rights
Members of the LGBT community celebrate at the Maverick bar, Belfast, after MPs voted to legalise same-sex marriage if a new Stormont Executive is not formed by October. Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA Wire
Praise be! We are to taste freedom. We have been delivered from the dystopia the DUP was determined to maintain in Northern Ireland. Suddenly, after half a century of bravely raised voices and campaigns that have been sometimes diligent, sometimes flamboyant, always denounced, it will no longer be a criminal offence to have an abortion, and people of the same sex will have the right to get married. Oh, and men will no longer be allowed to exercise coercive control over the women with whom they are in relationships. And parliament will be able to stand up against a no-deal Brexit. “Halle-f***ing-lujah!” as we say in Derry.
Or, as the Conservative peer Lord Duncan put it after the debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday went on into the early hours: “The sun will shortly rise and it will be a brave new world upon which it shines.”
That is, unless the NI parties get their act together pronto and get the Executive up and running again before October 21st. Not going to happen. A snowball would have a better chance of surviving in an RHI boiler in Cullybackey. Until this week plenty of us were giving out yards about this and about the failure of the hapless secretary of state to break the stalemate or face the obvious and introduce direct rule. It was a disgrace, a dereliction of duty, an abandonment to limbo. We’ve changed our tune. Now it is a case of, “Tell you what, why don’t you just hold out a bit longer? No rush. Take your time. Stormont looks nice, sitting up there on the hill, empty. You know what? We like limbo. Sure it’s a wee change.”
On Monday, all being well, British parliamentarians will pass the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercises of Function) Bill and Queen Elizabeth will soon thereafter sign it into law. (Not a bad soul, the queen.) By January 13th, 2020, regulations must be in place to enable same-sex couples to get married. Though there are private hopes of wedding bells at Christmas this year. By March 31st, 2020, regulatory changes must be in place to allow women to access abortions as a matter of healthcare. We will have a better regime than the rest of the UK.
It was never intended to turn out like this. The NI Bill was meant to cover up for the fact that everyone had just about given up on the idea that Northern Ireland could be governed at all. It was meant to be a law that enabled nothing to continue to happen. Instead it went full-on Game of Thrones season finale, watched glumly from their seats on the parliamentary benches by the DUP 10. It was hardly for this they sold their votes. This was a landslide. MPs across all the other parties voted for the required amendments by 328 votes to 65. Support in the House of Lords was similarly overwhelming. Even Michael Gove cast aside the DUP default position of “No!” and voted yes. Ian Paisley jnr would never have invited him for those big hotel dinners in Ballymena if he’d known this was how he’d be repaid. A Scottish MP called the DUP’s opposition to human rights “gruesome”. They shouted at him to “calm down”.
Actually, it suits the DUP quite well. They can now declare to their most furious fundamentalists and indeed at the pearly gates that they did what they could. Their consciences are clear. This was not their doing. It was out of their hands. And they don’t have to face the reality that a significant majority of their own voters had become morally liberal and were going to have to be listened to. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson claimed that keeping abortion out of the North was a “red line” issue for the party. Yet 67 per cent of DUP voters said in a poll they were in favour of it in cases of rape and fatal foetal abnormality.
It is a bit awkward for Sinn Féin, and their response to these momentous changes has been extremely subdued. Although in recent years the party has changed its policy and now supports a woman’s right to choose, and also backs LGBTQ rights, it doesn’t really fit the rhetoric when liberation is unexpectedly delivered by the parliament you steadfastly insist on boycotting.
These have been long, hard struggles. Amnesty NI has played a blinder, as have the Alliance for Choice, Love Equality and many, many other human rights and feminist campaign groups who have refused to give up in the face of many defeats. Reports from the UN’s committee on torture and the convention for the elimination of discrimination against women have drawn international attention to the situation.
Tears of relief
There are individual heroes. In Belfast on Thursday, Sara Ewart, who has heroically taken her own tragic abortion through the courts to try to bring change, cried tears of relief and joy beside the indefatigable campaigner Gráinne Teggart. No one else will now be put in the same position as the woman currently being prosecuted for helping her child get abortion pills after being raped.
Labour MPs Stella Creasy, Diana Johnson and Conor McGinn insisted that devolution did not mean segregation, and steered this Bill through the House of Commons. Lord Hayward and Baroness Barker were among those who got it through the Lords. Lord Hayward said that what had been done would help many people who needed that help. He quoted from a letter he got from someone in Northern Ireland who reminded him of all the people who, “rather than bringing shame on their families”, had killed themselves. “These,” said Lord Hayward, “are appropriate thoughts for what we have achieved here in the last few days.”