Northern Ireland bill - what happens next?

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI political reporter

image copyrightAFP/Getty Images
image captionAbortion and same-sex marriage votes made headlines last week

History will probably mark last week as a game-changing political moment in Northern Ireland.

If the Stormont assembly is not restored by 21 October, same-sex marriage is set to be legalised and abortion laws liberalised.

Rarely do devolved issues make it on to the House of Commons floor for debate.

Even rarer do devolved issues get an overwhelming backing from MPs during votes.

But two-and-a-half-years since the government at Stormont collapsed, are the tectonic plates of Northern Ireland politics now shifting?

Laws brought in line

The move by Labour MPs Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy to take two divisive, devolved matters and put them into Westminster's hands has received its fair share of praise and criticism.

There is a sense from many MPs that on social issues they would like Northern Ireland's laws brought into line with the rest of the UK - and have a duty to act in the absence of Stormont.

But others attacked the decision to tack on the amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, as its main purpose is to keep public services running and delay another assembly election.

media captionThe DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy have opposing views on the Westminster move

Whichever view you hold, there is no doubt it has paved the way for Parliament possibly taking on other issues for Northern Ireland in the absence of Stormont.

The bill is continuing its fast-track journey through the House of Lords.

Timeline of same-sex marriage

It will be debated again on Monday afternoon, when we might see the return of attempts by some pro-Remain peers to halt a no-deal Brexit.

Peers from Northern Ireland have also had their own take on the legislation, such as former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Trimble, who surprised some when he revealed his daughter had married her girlfriend during the debate in the Lords on Wednesday.

Differing opinions

"I have found myself taking a particular position with regard to same-sex marriage, which was forced upon me when my elder daughter got married to her girlfriend," he said.

"I cannot change that, and I cannot now go around saying that I am opposed to it because I acquiesced to it. There we are."

Lord Trimble had voted against the Civil Partnerships Bill in 2004 and in previous years the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was opposed to same-sex marriage.

Although in the last Stormont mandate, the UUP gave their members a free vote on both it and abortion.

It is just one example of how some might argue there is a shift happening.

image copyrightPA
image captionLord Trimble had voted against the Civil Partnerships Bill in 2004

When it comes to the amendment on abortion law in Northern Ireland, however, things are less clear cut.

Campaigners who advocate for abortion law coming into line with the rest of the UK say it is about giving women a choice, while those opposed argue it is unfair for Westminster to legislate over the heads of voters in Northern Ireland.

On Sunday, a letter jointly written by Baroness Nuala O'Loan and Church of Ireland Archbishop Lord Eames was handed out at Catholic church services, describing the move to liberalise abortion laws as treating the "people of Northern Ireland with contempt".

Northern Ireland's attorney general John Larkin intervened in the debate last week and said the amendment passed by MPs had not been "drafted clearly or consistently" with human rights laws.

It should be pointed out Parliament has voted on other matters for Northern Ireland since devolution collapsed in January 2017.

MPs have had to approve two budgets, while legislation to reduce payments to claimants of a flawed green energy scheme, known as the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), had to be fast-tracked through Parliament as well.

But the events of the past seven days seem bigger than that.

media captionBBC News NI looks at the timeline of the same-sex marriage debate in Northern Ireland.

Some people have being asking: "What is the point of having devolved government when Westminster can legislate on behalf of people in Northern Ireland?"

The argument is that if decisions are at least being taken somewhere it's better than holding on to hope for progress at Stormont.

What happens next?

There are calls for MPs to take action on other stalled matters for Northern Ireland.

The next piece of legislation we might see coming to the Commons would allow the government to proceed with compensation for victims of Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) - although that is unlikely to go before MPs until the autumn.

media captionThe law on abortion in Northern Ireland explained

Few expect talks at Stormont aimed at restoring devolution to lead to a breakthrough before the end of October, given the potentially huge law changes waiting in the wings.

After decades of campaigning, some will welcome the move.

Others will worry that, in these rapidly changing times, Stormont has become more irrelevant than ever.

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