Explainer: What’s happening in Northern Ireland?

Understanding a new bill on same-sex marriage and abortion

July 18, 2019

On July 9, the U.K. Parliament intervened in the politics of Northern Ireland by voting for a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage and abortion. Under the current law, same-sex couples can only attain civil partnership status. Likewise, abortion is only permissible under the National Health Service in Northern Ireland if the mother’s life is in danger or there is suspected long-term mental or physical damage caused by having a baby. 

To understand where this bill came from and how it was voted on, it’s important to map out a timeline of events.

How did we get here? 

November 2012: A renewable energy initiative called the renewable heating initiative (RHI) was introduced, seeking to shift Northern Ireland from fossil fuels to renewable sources of fuel. Major spending oversights equated to an excess of £700 million. The responsibility for the scheme lay with the devolved government in Stormont’s Department of Enterprise.

February 2016: The evidence of overspending hit the press, showing the major spending oversights within the scheme. Arlene Foster (Democratic Unionist Party leader & First Minister of Northern Ireland) came under scrutiny for her role as secretary to the department in 2012. The Good Friday Agreement requires two parties that represent two distinct perspectives within Northern Ireland to share the power in the devolved government. Therefore, when opposition party leader Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fien) tendered his resignation as Deputy First Minister, it triggered a general election. 

The results of the election favored Sinn Féin, who won 27 seats, the same number of seats as the DUP. The DUP lost 10 seats from the previous election, and with that lost the majority. The election exasperated the stalemate between Sinn Féin and the DUP, later leading to the shutdown of the devolved government in Northern Ireland in January 2017. 2019 has revealed that nothing has changed; both parties are yet to come to an agreement to form a government again. The July 9 vote was a last resort due to the effects of not having a government.

What does the bill mean? 

The Northern Ireland (Executive formation) Bill grants the powers to the secretary of state (Karen Bradley, member of Parliament) to circumvent devolved Government in Northern Ireland. An amendment allowing for same-sex couples to marry is included in this bill. The bill also has an amendment added to it allowing the secretary of state to pass laws amending the “strict” abortion laws that currently exist in Northern Ireland. The bill would change Northern Ireland’s laws to widen the laws beyond the 24 weeks limit set in the rest of the United Kingdom to 28 weeks. A study carried out by pro-life organization “Both Lives Matter” showed that because Northern Ireland didn’t implement the Abortion Act in 1967, 100,000 people are alive today who would have been aborted otherwise.

What are the next steps? 

The bill gives the Northern Ireland Assembly until Oct. 21, 2019, to form a government. If it doesn’t, the bill will be imposed by the secretary of state. The prospects of an agreement being reached are slim due to Sinn Féin’s vested interest in passing similar laws like this in the past. An open letter has been sent to Prime Minister Theresea May seeking to highlight the “constitutional abuses” the bill has brought about. A staggering 15,000 people have signed the open letter over the weekend, showing the public disapproval of Parliament’s actions last week. 

How should we respond? 

Many Northern Ireland evangelicals have expressed their dissatisfaction with the proposed laws. As Christians, how should we deal with all the anger and frustration at the dismaying laws due to be passed? We need a biblical worldview. 

Our primary purpose in this discussion is the Lordship of Christ over every governing power on earth. In How the Nations Rage, Jonathan Leeman drives this integral doctrine when he uses the example of John 19. Jesus is being delivered up to Pilate to be crucified. The rest of the Gospel accounts tell us that he has been silent during the questioning of the chief priests during their kangaroo court. Now, he’s before the most powerful man in all of Jerusalem, one who has the power to take his life. 

What does Jesus say? “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” 

This should provide a wake-up call to the church. Politics is not the final judgement; God is. The government does not have complete authority; God does. Our political party or policy position should not have our complete submission; God should. A biblical worldview then, shows us that God is ultimately in control. We should turn our anger and dissatisfaction into zeal, longing to see hearts and minds changed by the gospel and desiring the see our neighbors and societies flourish. 

Glossary of terms: 

Devolved government: Powers given to local politicians in Northern Ireland that were originally under the control of Westminster. 

Stormont: A building that is home to Northern Ireland’s devolved government. 

Department of Enterprise: Full title: Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. A department that is in charge of developing plans for Northern Ireland’s economic policy, encompassing a host of services from tourism to consumer affairs. 

Good Friday agreement: An agreement made between the two main political parties (Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist Party) enabling Northern Ireland to sustain a devolved Government.

Nationalist: Political motives lie with uniting Northern Ireland (UK) with the Republic of Ireland. 

Unionist: Political motives lie with continuing the union with the United Kingdom.

Executive formation: This phrase is used within the bill to summarize the law that is being delayed until Oct. 21. The law calls for secretary of state (Karen Bradley MP) to call a general election in Northern Ireland to overcome the impasse. 

Matthew Jackson

Matthew Jackson is a current intern at the Nashville office. Being from Belfast, Northern Ireland; he will be completing his final year this coming academic year in Queens University Belfast where he is studying Primary Education. Matthew hopes to either pursue a career in teaching or work in Education policy. Read More by this Author