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Suzanne Breen: Let's move forward together in freedom after October 21

Legalising gay marriage and abortion means equality at last for people here

Conor McGinn MP. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Conor McGinn MP. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Don't whisper it softly, shout it from the roof-tops. The days of the bigots and the backwoodsmen are numbered. Northern Ireland is poised to let in the light and finally move into the 21st century.

If an Executive isn't formed by October 21, abortion will cease to be a criminal offence and people of the same sex who love each other will have the right to marry.

After decades of what often looked like doomed campaigning, victory for those who believe in equality lies just around the corner.

Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern and all the usual suspects put on a pedestal - often I believe wrongly - for their contribution to politics in this place need to move over.

Because Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn are on the brink of delivering something that will bring real and lasting change to people's lives for decades to come.

While politicians here across the spectrum have historically failed women and the LGBT community, most parties have made an attempt to play catch-up in recent years.

At the very least, abortion and same-sex marriage are matters of conscience for them.

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Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists were all prepared to take the plunge and move to a more progressive stance, even if that lost them votes with some traditional supporters.

In Ian Paisley's North Antrim heartland (and with Jim Allister breathing down his neck), Robin Swann wasn't scared to nail his colours to the rainbow mast.

Sinn Fein saw off the challenge on abortion from Peadar Toibin's Aontu in the local government elections here.

Opinion polls show that SDLP voters are more conservative on abortion than those from any other political party. Still, Colum Eastwood successfully shifted the SDLP's position last year.

By comparison, the DUP is determined to remain on the wrong side of history until the bitter end. How out-of-step the party is with mainstream British opinion was once again made clear in Parliament last week.

In the House of Lords, the arguments put forward by Lords McCrea and Morrow were systematically demolished.

Figuratively and literally, they were the voices of another era. Lord McCrea said he was speaking as "a father of five children and 10 grandchildren".

Straight up after him, Lord Carlile spoke of his five children and nine grandchildren. One daughter was in a "very happy gay marriage to our beloved daughter-in-law, and another daughter who was in a gay civil partnership is now married to a man, that is what real life is like", he said.

Lord Steel noted the irony of objecting to a trade border in the Irish Sea while strongly supporting "a statutory social barrier".

The DUP peers huffed and puffed about the undemocratic nature of Westminster taking control of what they insisted was a devolved matter.

A party which wielded the petition of concern to thwart the democratic will of the Assembly on equal marriage is hardly in a position to deliver any lectures.

Until now all attention has focused on the DUP's confidence-and-supply agreement with the Tories. But another figure from Northern Ireland has proved a very effective operator at Westminster.

The assiduous efforts of Amnesty International's Patrick Corrigan in lobbying parliamentarians and charting a way forward on equal marriage and abortion reform cannot be underestimated.

Last week Corrigan challenged the portrayal of Northern Ireland as evenly split on the two issues. A recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Surveys shows 71% of people are pro-choice and 68% support equal marriage, he pointed out.

The exhaustive campaigning by grassroots activists changed public opinion so dramatically. Not just today's campaigners, but those like the Family Planning Association's former director Audrey Simpson, who made a stand in the 1980s when the terrain was far more uncomfortable than it is now.

And of course those who have courageously came forward and told their own story - like Sarah Ewart - played a major role in the debate.

A powerfully moving photograph showed Sarah embracing Amnesty's Grainne Teggart as the Commons vote was declared.

What a victory for her and all the other women who have been forced to make the long and lonely journey across the Irish Sea for a healthcare service that should have been available at home.

Women like Sarah, carrying a foetus with a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. Women who had been raped. Women who had suffered contraception failures.

Women who already had too many mouths to feed at home. Women with a whole range of back stories, who were not shown an ounce of compassion by the men who judged and legislated for them.

What a triumph, too, for those made to feel like second-class citizens because they loved the 'wrong' person. No more will they be denied the same marriage rights as their heterosexual brothers and sisters.

Roll on October 21. The gloom is finally lifting. The dark days belong to the past. Let us look back in anger, and move forward in freedom.

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