Today at the stroke of midnight, new laws came into place in Northern Ireland which will give women the right to abortion, as well as permit same-sex marriage.

Although abortion within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy has been legal in England, Wales and Scotland for decades, it had remained banned in Northern Ireland in almost all circumstances - including rape and incest. Northern Ireland was also the last place left in the UK where same-sex marriage was not allowed, with Scotland, England and Wales all legalising same-sex marriage in 2014

How did this change happen?

Northern Ireland has been without a government for almost three years after the devolved executive and assembly collapsed in January 2017 owing to ongoing disagreements between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and all attempts to restore power-sharing have since failed.

Back in July 2019, Westminster MPs backed amendments which required the government to liberalise abortion and extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland if devolution was not restored by 21 October.

Yesterday, the Unionist parties, who oppose the upcoming liberalisation, triggered the Northern Ireland assembly's recall with a petition, aiming to push through a “Defence of the Unborn Child” bill. However, this was blocked by the Speaker who said that legal advice told him Assembly business could not proceed without the election of a new Speaker and deputies on a cross-community basis. It was clear that this would not be possible when the nationalist SDLP members left the chamber.

What does this mean for human rights in Northern Ireland?

At the start of this month the High Court in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland's abortion law breached the UK's human rights commitments. This judgement follows on from a ruling of the UK Supreme Court in 2018, which ruled that the abortion restrictions, which banned termination even in cases of rape, incest and foetal abnormality violated the right to a private and family life (Article 8).

As the 21 October deadline has now passed, from midnight today police in Northern Ireland can no longer carry out investigations on abortions and all criminal proceedings on termination will be dropped. The next step is the launch of a 12 week consultation to determine how abortion services will be implemented from 31 March. As this is the date at which the UK government is legally required to have put in place guidelines for free, safe, legal and local abortion services.

Regarding same sex-marriage, it is expected that it will take the British parliament until mid-January to bring in the new legislation. Therefore, as 28 days notice must be given for all marriages, Valentine’s Day 2020 will be the first opportunity for same-sex couples to marry.

Image Credit: Amnesty International NI