Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 0°C
Steve Parsons/PA Images DUP leader Arlene Foster has plenty to consider in the months ahead.

'The DUP didn't want this, but some will be relieved': What happens now in Northern Ireland?

These votes have been a long-time coming – but make the return of power-sharing much less likely.

TWO AND A half years after Stormont collapsed, same-sex marriage and abortion legislation could be coming to Northern Ireland – but only if power-sharing isn’t restored by 21 October. 

The votes in the House of Commons – the product of amendments put forward by Labour MPs Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy – are the culmination of years of campaigning and lobbying. 

But even as the applause died down in Westminster and campaigners took to Twitter to celebrate, no one yet knows what this means for the stalemate in Northern Ireland. 

It also raises questions about direct rule – the prospect of which has overshadowed Northern Irish politics for two years – and whether the British parliament’s intervention on same-sex marriage and abortion signal the final days of devolution. 

Talks in Northern Ireland have repeatedly stalled since power-sharing collapsed following the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister in January 2017. 

A number of issues had led to power-sharing splintering, including the botched RHI scheme that had been overseen by then-finance minister Arlene Foster and the Sinn Féin demand for an Irish Language Act. 

Since then, no one has budged. Sinn Féin have also made same-sex marriage and abortion reform a key ask in any negotiations. 

The political environment has not helped foster a spirit of reconciliation. If anything, Brexit has become more of a polarising issue since January 2017, while the success of the 2018 repeal referendum in Ireland has helped focus international scrutiny on Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law. 

Added to this is a Conservative government, nominally backed by the DUP, that has been repeatedly criticised for its approach to Northern Ireland, as well as Secretary of State in Karen Bradley who has faced calls to resign for her performance in the portfolio. 

Talks have occurred intermittently over the last two years, with the most recent discussions place in May. However, even before Tuesday’s vote very few had predicted any return to power-sharing in the busy months ahead as both the British and Irish governments grapple with Brexit. 

How the vote came about

In parallel to these negotiations, campaigners have been lobbying MPs to legislate for same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland. Both Labour MPs Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy have led the charge on this and these amendments weren’t the first such attempts to bypass the Stormont deadlock. 

The campaign has come with caveats – everyone would rather this was legislated for by Northern Irish politicians. But pragmatism has often won out, alongside a pessimism that power-sharing will not be restored in the near future. 

As McGinn wrote in The Guardian in 2018: “I’m very clear that the decision to approve same-sex marriage would ideally be made by the Northern Ireland assembly doing the job it is supposed to be doing. But there has been a vacuum now for more than a year and every day that LGBT couples in Northern Ireland have to wait for equal marriage legislation to be passed is a day too long.”

The same-sex marriage campaign has been bolstered by the fact that in 2015, the Northern Ireland assembly did in fact vote for same-sex marriage, but it was blocked by the DUP use of the petition of concern – basically a veto on controversial legislation. 

What happens next?

In determining what happens next, it’s important not to lump together Northern Irish attitudes to same-sex marriage and abortion. While polling data is limited, there is a general sense that the majority of population in Northern Ireland support marriage equality. 

When it comes to abortion, there is also evidence of public support for change – but like other issues in Northern Ireland survey evidence suggests that support and opposition are often manifested in the binaries of unionist and nationalist politics. 

Yet for both parties, their response will now be defined by the realities of politics in the North. In recent years, following the collapse in support for the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, both Sinn Féin and the DUP have become umbrella, catch-all parties where voters’ sectional interest matter more than differences over policy. 

Crucially, as one former DUP official told, same-sex marriage legislation was largely inevitable as soon as the assembly was re-established given the current composition of MLAs. 

In the 2017 local assembly election, the DUP only won 28 seats – leaving it two votes short of the magic 30 number required to trigger a petition of concern. While it could probably have relied on the support of another unionist party, namely the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), this would still have left the party short of the necessary votes. 

The loss of this veto mechanism would have significantly changed the balance of power in Stormont if the assembly was still running. 

But Tuesday’s vote only makes any agreement before October less likely, the former official said. 

Prof Jon Tonge, a lecturer at the University of Liverpool and an expert on Northern Irish politics, said it was important to distinguish both parties from Northern Irish voters. 

“DUP voters are much more liberal than DUP members,” Tonge told “In terms of DUP voter base, they’ll shrug and carry on,” he said. 

Tonge agreed that the votes will reduce incentives for both parties to return to power-sharing. 

“Stormont isn’t coming back any time soon,” Tonge said. For Sinn Féin, yesterday’s votes come close to guaranteeing two of the party’s major demands. They’d be “mad” to return to negotiations before October, Tonge suggested. 

However, in the long-term the amendments could help plot a path back to Stormont by removing some of the more contentious political issues from Northern Ireland politics. 

“The DUP didn’t want this. But there is a section, even of the DUP, that probably is quite relieved in one sense that if Westminster sorts these issues then at least the DUP can’t be seen as part of the process,” Tonge said. 

“The DUP would rather these days be defined by attitudes towards the union more than it would on attitudes like same-sex marriage,” he added. 

In the hours since the vote, the DUP has remained largely quiet on the issue. Arlene Foster, who is not an MP and was at Wimbledon rather than Westminster on Tuesday, has not yet commented but in the days to come we can expect the party to raise objections to the process – as opposed to the substance – of the votes. 

In the House of Commons, DUP objections indeed focused on how these amendments undermined devolution in Northern Ireland and raised an awkward precedent for the British government. 

“It is not right that we should drive a coach and horses through the devolution settlement in relation to certain issues which people feel passionately and deeply about here but which are the subject of devolved powers in Northern Ireland,” DUP MP Nigel Dodds said.

“It does raise constitutional questions – is this direct rule? Is it halfway house direct rule? There are questions to be answered,” Tonge said. 

“If devolution has collapsed, why aren’t a range of laws being introduced?” he added. 

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel