"This is Labour at its best – protecting the many who are calling out for their rights, against the loud few who want to keep the status quo. "
The situation in Northern Ireland highlights the danger of over-domestication of rights protection, not least in relation to cross-community issues. As Northern Ireland is often overlooked, many in ‘mainland UK’ do not know that some rights taken as a given do not extend across the Irish Sea.
The Abortion Act 1967, for example, does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortion is still illegal unless there is a serious and long-term risk to mental or physical health of the mother. This is interpreted strictly and fatal foetal abnormalities do not fulfil the criteria. Northern Ireland is also the only part of the UK and Ireland that does not yet have equal marriage laws. The Executive repeatedly refuses to implement equal marriage laws, despite a vote at the end of 2015 receiving an overall majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Although there is some hope now that the DUP have lost their ability to bring a ‘petition of concern’, progress doesn’t appear to be on the agenda just yet. Even if individual MLAs did wish to raise the issues, the two main parties cannot even agree on how to form an executive, let alone put anything to a vote.
If we are to believe that the UK is a ‘union of equals’, then we cannot allow those who live in Northern Ireland to be consistently denied rights enjoyed by those on mainland UK.
It is therefore to be welcomed that the Labour Party have included extending the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland in their manifesto. Diane Abbot has been a fierce advocate of extending the Act, and has frequently pushed the proposition in Parliament.
Missing from the manifesto however is any proposition to do the same with equal marriage. However, the current leadership and his team are consistent advocates of marriage equality, and this omission is likely an oversight. If you are fortunate enough to have a Labour MP after the General Election, I urge you to write to them to raise this issue.
For both abortion and equal marriage, there is an argument that the issues should be put to referendum . However, Human Rights are not, and should not be a devolved issue, or an issue that can be decided on referenda. The High Court in Belfast has already stated that the blanket ban on abortion is illegal as it violates Human Rights, but the devolved legislature refuses to soften the law. As discussed above, even if there was the motivation amongst some MLAs, the main parties have not formed an executive so no vote is possible.
Any argument that this is ‘against the will’ of the Northern Irish people is patronising and, quite simply, wrong. Recent opinion polls show that around 60% of people in Northern Ireland would welcome a softening of the law (and up to 72% in the case of rape). A survey carried out in summer 2016 also showed that 70% of the population would welcome equal marriage legislation. To say that the majority of Northern Irish people would oppose progress is to listen only to a loud minority.
I welcome Labour’s proposition to extend the 1967 Abortion Act, and hope that similar measures will be introduced in relation to equal marriage. It will not be an easy ride, and there will be loud opposition, but this is Labour at its best – protecting the many who are calling out for their rights, against the loud few who want to keep the status quo.
Charlotte Norton is the Editor of Anticipations and the Young Fabians blog. Follow her on twitter at @Charlottelvn90