US News Abortion and same-sex marriage to become law in Northern Ireland as Westminster rule comes into force
Unionists fail in Stormont bid to halt law making NI abortions legal
The first sitting of the Stormont Assembly in two-and-a-half years ended in acrimony after a last-minute bid by unionists to thwart the decriminalisation of abortion was blocked. Despite the ongoing absence of a power-sharing executive, the Assembly sat after it was recalled by MLAs wanting to protest at changes to Northern Ireland's abortion laws.Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland at midnight.Pro-choice activists held aloft cardboard letters spelling out "decriminalised" in front of Parliament Buildings ahead of the sitting.
The deadline for Northern Ireland to block the introduction of same-sex marriage and end prosecution for women accessing abortions expires on Monday.
Women in Northern Ireland will no longer be prosecuted for accessing an abortion from midnight under legislation passed by Westminster.
Laws criminalising abortion immediately cease to apply in the region, meaning that no criminal charges can be brought against those who terminate a pregnancy or assist someone in doing so.
Medical providers will begin to routinely offer abortion services in Northern Ireland when a new framework is rolled out in March 2020, but interim guidelines provide assistance to help women access abortion services in England.
Last-minute attempt to stop decriminalisation of abortion blocked
Abortion will be decriminalised in Northern Ireland at midnight.Despite the ongoing absence of a powersharing executive, the Assembly sat after it was recalled by MLAs wishing to protest at changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.
The failure to agree a power sharing deal also means marriage rights for same-sex couples can now be extended.
Officials will be instructed to set about amending regulations to make way for the weddings. Couples will be able to give 28 days' notice to marry from 13 January 2020, with the first weddings expected to take place on Valentine's Day.
Same-sex marriage will begin to become legal in Northern Ireland from Monday (Photo: Peter Morrison/PA Wire)
Same-sex couples have been allowed to marry in England, Wales and Scotland since 2014, as well as in the Republic of Ireland.
On Monday, same-sex couples from across Northern Ireland will come together in Belfast to celebrate the the landmark moment with a mock wedding reception - with wedding cake, flowers and balloons.
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Amnesty International's Northern Ireland director, Patrick Corrigan, a member of the Love Equality campaign, said: "After years of campaigning, marriage equality in Northern Ireland is finally about to become a reality. This is an incredible moment for so many people, especially for those couples who will now be treated as equal citizens in their own country.
“Within a few short months, same-sex couples here will be tying the knot. That is a great cause for celebration, for them, their families and for all who have led and supported this campaign for equality."
Although abortion and marriage rights are typically devolved issues, the changes were imposed by MPs in Westminster in July in the absence of a devolved government.
The Northern Ireland Executive has been suspended since 2017, when a power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin collapsed.
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Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, has opposed the changes. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
The law passed by the UK Parliament said that abortion and same-sex marriage would become legal unless a new Northern Ireland Executive was formed before 21 October.
As no new power-sharing executive is expected to be formed by the deadline on Monday, the changes will come into effect.
Despite the ongoing suspension of the executive, regional lawmakers from the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party plan to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly, for the first time in three years on Monday, to signal their opposition to the changes.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said: "There are serious matters.. which should be decisions made in Stormont. We urge other MLAs who oppose the extreme liberalisation of our abortion law, to step outside any Party shackles and join us in recalling the Assembly."
The sitting will have no powers to pass laws, and Alliance and Sinn Féin have decried the plans as a "stunt".
The UK government's Northern Ireland Office said in a statement: "It has always been the Government’s strong preference for decisions on sensitive, devolved matters such as these to be taken by the locally elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.
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"The restoration of the Executive and Assembly is of vital importance to the people of Northern Ireland. This is the top priority of the Secretary of State and he is continuing to work with the Northern Ireland parties to meet that objective."
The UK government's Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith will be responsible for bringing about the changes(Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
However, it confirmed: "If the Northern Ireland Executive is not restored by 21 October 2019, legislation passed by the UK Parliament has placed a legal duty on the UK Government to take action to legalise access to abortion services in Northern Ireland.
"In these circumstances, a new framework providing safe and lawful access to services will be in place by 31 March 2020."
It added: "The UK government will [also] introduce regulations that would mean marriage between couples of the same sex, and civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples, would be lawful in Northern Ireland from 13 January 2020.
"From that date, couples would be able to give notice of their intent to form a marriage or civil partnership."
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