Adoption ruling alters landscape on 'moral' issues
Gay couples in Northern Ireland have won the right to adopt children on the same basis as heterosexual couples. The announcement came two weeks ago today.
A ripple of celebration has since been spreading across gay publications and websites. But the change has scarcely been reported in mainstream media, or to have drawn comment from any of the main political parties.
The development represents a robust repudiation of the position advanced by the Attorney General John Larkin in the courts here, in Britain, and in Europe, that the ban on gay adoption was in line with the law.
Taken in conjunction with the announcement by Justice Minister David Ford of a consultation on changing the abortion law, the move on gay adoption might be taken to herald an advance towards a more liberal approach on "moral" issues generally.
Mr Ford told BBC Radio Ulster's Nolan Show, on December 5, that the abortion consultation would focus on whether women carrying babies with fatal foetal abnormalities, or who have become pregnant as a result of rape, or incest, should be allowed to have terminations in the north. Mr Ford told Nolan that he hoped to publish the consultation document by next Easter.
The change in relation to gay adoption is already in operation.
Adoption agencies – including agencies associated with church groups, which are opposed to gay adoption on doctrinal grounds – have been circulated by the department with advice on the new protocols which they must observe.
News of reform of the rules governing adoption emerged after gay rights protesters carried a rainbow flag into a Public Facing Accountability meeting attended by Health Minister Edwin Poots (above) at Altnagelvin Hospital on November 27.
A campaigner, pictured in local newspapers holding the flag up behind Mr Poots, Sha Gillespie, said afterwards that she and other protesters were "sick of this man dictating to me how I should live my life". She told reporters covering the meeting that she regarded his objection to gay adoption as particularly offensive.
On June 27 last, the Court of Appeal in Belfast had rejected the case put forward by Mr Larkin and upheld a claim by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that the ban on gay adoption was in breach of European human rights legislation.
Mr Poots's department then applied to the Supreme Court in London for permission to appeal the ruling on a point of law.
On November 1, the Supreme Court threw the application out. But, in spite of this seeming to leave the Minister with no avenue for further legal action, Mr Poots, in the Assembly on November 12, didn't deal with the implications of the decision, but merely restated his own, well-known views.
"The natural order is for a man and a woman to have a child and, therefore, that has made my views on adoption very, very clear and on raising children very, very clear," he said.
With no acknowledgement by the department of any legal requirement for change, many campaigners feared a repeat of the situation which had prevailed for years with regard to abortion – of court decisions being effectively ignored, and guidelines much more restrictive than judges had declared legal being kept in place and even further constricted.
It was this which gave rise to the frustration that prompted the protest during Mr Poots's visit to Altnagelvin. On the day after the protest, the Derry Journal asked his department to respond to Ms Gillespie's complaint.
The department issued a statement: "Following the Court of Appeal ruling on June 27, the department issued an information note to all adoption agencies instructing them to accept applications from unmarried couples (including same-sex couples) and those in civil partnership arrangement.
"The final decision on whether an adoption order should be made will be a matter for the court."
The last sentence is superfluous. It is already the case that the courts are the final arbiters on the issue of adoption orders.
And the basis of the final decision, insofar as it affects gay couples, has been spelt out: it is not open to the courts, or to any agency, to reject potential adoptive parents on ground of sexual orientation.
The last fortnight has seen more substantial advance than in any previous decade on issues long regarded in the north as totally intractable.
The tectonic shifts are changing the terrain.