Northern Ireland

What does vote on Northern Ireland bill mean?

Same sex marriage painting Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly have previously voted five times on whether or not to introduce same-sex marriage

There are two ways to read what just happened in parliament.

The first, how many campaigners see it, is that this is a watershed moment towards legalising same-sex marriage and liberalising abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

The other take is that this is the biggest step yet by Westminster when it comes to implementing direct rule in NI.

That's something that might cause more than a rumbling of worry when it comes to the current talks process at Stormont.

The socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) voted against both of the divisive amendments, arguing parliament was overstepping the mark and the matters should remain devolved.

MPs critical of that logic said there hasn't been a functioning government in Northern Ireland since 2017 - and they now had a duty to back a law change.

It bears repeating that the amendments are subject to one big caveat.

They will only take effect if Stormont is not restored by 21 October (the next obligatory date by which the NI secretary must call an assembly election).

So could we see a fast breakthrough by the Stormont parties, to take back control of the issues?

Image caption Labour MP Conor McGinn tabled the amendment that sought to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, if devolution is not restored

That seems unlikely.

Some believe Tuesday's developments could rather serve to hold back the process and affect the political mood music.

Any final agreement on a deal has to come between the DUP and Sinn Féin, who are diametrically opposed on a number of sticking points, including same-sex marriage.

Sinn Féin has previously campaigned for same-sex marriage to be legalised in Northern Ireland.

The party might now think restoring the assembly could remove the chance of same-sex marriage becoming legal in NI any time soon - and could potentially put it at odds with many Sinn Féin voters.

When it comes to the DUP, one theory is that the party would privately like Westminster to pass legislation on the issue and remove it from the negotiations.

Thinking to do?

It's faced criticism for calling for Northern Ireland to remain fully aligned with Great Britain after Brexit, while defending Northern Ireland being unique on other issues - citing the power of devolution.

As the only main political party in NI to remain opposed to same-sex marriage, to allow it to progress through Westminster could get the DUP out of a tricky spot.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The DUP voted against the amendments, arguing MPs had hijacked the process of devolution

But what the party remains aware of, is what all this could mean for other issues that should be under control of the assembly, which could now end up before Parliament at some point.

The two big parties will have some thinking to do in the coming days about their next moves.

Meanwhile, supporters of the latest parliamentary antics have the deputy speaker's office to thank.

Few had anticipated that the amendments would even be selected for debate, given how much controversy they had the potential to stir up.

It's perhaps a nod to the overarching power of politics - that it can bring about change on issues many people feel strongly about, one way or the other - and a reminder of what has been missing from politics at Stormont for two and a half years now.

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