Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Momentous Westminster vote will finally help drag this place into the 21st century

If we are part of the UK, then we must live by its rules on abortion and same-sex marriage, says Fionola Meredith

The DUP’s Nigel Dodds
The DUP’s Nigel Dodds
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Living in Northern Ireland often feels like being stuck in an endlessly spiralling time-warp. Especially in the summer, when the usual rows about flags or bonfires flare up, and everything descends into noisy tribal farce. In this small, pathologically divided corner of our small island, it seems that nothing ever changes.

But now something has changed, and it is potentially momentous. It's not about flags and bonfires, of course - those skirmishes will go on for eternity, or at least until Northern Ireland collapses into the sea, crumbling under the weight of its own internal contradictions. No, what's changed has come from outside.

Westminster has finally taken pity on us and voted to legalise both same-sex marriage and abortion here - if Stormont is not back up and running by October 21.

So if Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill don't sort out their differences by then, Westminster will pull us, belatedly but mercifully, into the sunshine of the 21st century.

It'll make a nice change from the twilit gloom of our perpetual middle ages.

Failing to get their collective act together means that Mrs Foster will be overruled on two of her party's key moral monoliths - perhaps to her secret relief, who knows?

Mrs O'Neill, meanwhile, can simply sit back and wait for the equality she claims to love so much - but she'll get it delivered courtesy of the hated Brits.

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The enraged harrumphing led by the DUP has been mighty, of course. In the Commons Nigel Dodds, the DUP's Westminster leader, said the vote drove a "coach and horses through the principle of devolution". DUP MP Ian Paisley claimed it would lead to an increase in "unregulated abortions" and said the "right to life" must be upheld.

Back home, too, the inevitable clamour began. The general secretary of the Presbyterian Church, Trevor Gribben, described it as "regrettable and unhelpful, running contrary to the spirit of devolution". The Methodists' leading men, Sam McGuffin and David Clements, cautioned against legislating "over the heads" of people in Northern Ireland. Peter Lynas, of Evangelical Alliance NI, said that MPs had voted to "fundamentally undermine devolution".

Gentlemen, gentlemen, calm yourselves. For a start, and I don't know if you've noticed this, we ain't got devolution.

It's now 30 months and counting since the Assembly fell. There is no government to legislate for us, and no sign of its imminent return.

Women in distress, with crisis pregnancies, cannot afford to wait while our leaders continue to indulge themselves with their protracted sectarian stand-off.

And why should people in same-sex relationships be denied the right to legally enshrine their love, as they have long been able to do in the rest of the UK and Ireland, just because Arlene and Michelle don't like each other?

As for the idea that Westminster is doing this "over our heads" and in defiance of the public will, there is a one word answer to that.

Guff. Poll after poll has shown that the Northern Ireland people support change on same-sex marriage and abortion reform. Even among DUP voters, more of them back marriage equality and abortion than oppose it.

Whatever the fine political and theological words about defending the principle of devolution, or protecting the sanctity of life, this comes down to a simple issue of control.

Control over women's bodies, control over people's lives.

As Westminster has now declared, that unconscionable control must be relinquished.

Why? Because it is not the business of the State and statesmen, nor of the Church and churchmen, to dictate our private choices.

Whether we choose to bear children and whom we choose to love and wed: these should be matters for the individual alone to decide, supported by the law.

Equality and choice are not nebulous concepts, floating somewhere up in the ether. They only exist in the context of personal action.

If autonomy means anything, it is the freedom to forge our own destinies.

The men of the old guard need not fear. Nobody will be forced to have an abortion they do not want. Not a single person will be coerced into marrying someone of the same sex, against their will.

Of course, it's possible that by some bizarre and unpredictable series of circumstances, Stormont might manage to resurrect itself before the October 21 deadline. But whatever happens, we cannot be abandoned to the time-warp of repression and control.

Are we, or are we not, part of the United Kingdom? One glorious, indivisible, Brexit-proof Union, just as the DUP likes to tell us?

If that's true, then it's only right that we all get to live by its democratic rules.

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