MPs have voted resoundingly to extend same-sex marriage and access to abortion to Northern Ireland, bringing the region into line with the rest of the UK on the two significant social issues.
The two historic votes, arriving within little more than a quarter of an hour of each other, were greeted ecstatically by equalities campaigners. With ministers promising to respect the results, they could have vital repercussions for people in Northern Ireland.
Both were the culmination of long campaigns by backbench Labour MPs, who said the government’s argument that the changes could only be made by the devolved Northern Irish government was defunct, given it has been suspended amid political deadlock since the start of 2017.
The changes came via amendments to an otherwise technical government bill connected to budgets and elections for the devolved assembly. In the first amendment, tabled by the Labour MP Conor McGinn, a longstanding campaigner for equal marriage in Northern Ireland, the Commons voted 383 to 73 to extend it to the region.
In a vote soon afterwards, MPs approved an amendment by another Labour MP, Stella Creasy, to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK where it remains illegal. The vote was passed by 332 to 99. Both were free votes as they were viewed as matters of conscience. While the Northern Ireland minister, John Penrose, who spoke for the government, warned MPs that both potential changes would be fraught with complications, he voted in favour of both amendments.
McGinn’s amendment would theoretically lead to an automatic change in the law within three months if the devolved government remained stalled, although Penrose warned it might take longer owing to legal practicalities. If and when the region’s executive is revived, it can then approve or repeal the measure.