The amendments in the names of Labour MPs Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy had been sensitively crafted to respect the devolution settlement and allowed for the Assembly to resume control over both issues should a power sharing Executive be in place again by October 31st. It had not been the Government’s intention to include social reforms as part of this technical Bill but when the Speaker allowed the amendments it became clear that this was an opportunity to break the logjam over these important equality issues and extend human rights to all Northern Ireland citizens in ways already in place for the rest of the UK. If these changes were made and the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive subsequently restored, it would be very unlikely the changes would ever be repealed as they had majority support among the people of Northern Ireland.
It was depressingly predictable when the SNP’s Northern Ireland spokesperson at Westminster, Gavin Newlands, announced ahead of the votes that the SNP would abstain as they did not vote on devolved matters. However, the SNP Group had not anticipated the backlash that would come their way from equality organisations and individuals. It just wasn’t true that they never voted on devolved matters. When it suited them they would identify some knock on effect for Scotland that allowed them to vote. And in the case of the proposed vote to relax the fox hunting ban in England and Wales, the SNP had boasted of forcing a government climb down after they threatened to vote against it. Of course, the real dilemma here for SNP MPs was the age old conflict of support for progressive change up against constitutional politics, and which would have precedence. In the scope of a matter of hours we had Ian Blackford, Joanna Cherry, Tommy Shepherd and Hannah Bardell breaking ranks and declaring they would support the amendements. Nicola Sturgeon also backed this position and the group were given a free vote. I think this was the right decision and I welcomed the fact that they had responded to pressure and admitted their first position had been misguided. As it happened, both amendments were overwhelmingly passed and on this occasion, the votes of SNP MPs were irrelevant.
I had always regarded my own MP, Philippa Whitford, as one of the more thoughtful of the SNP Group. Why, Oh why then did she end up abstaining on these two amendments. My first correspondence was in fairly open terms seeking an explanation. I understand how Westminster politics works and was half expecting her to explain that she had thought the party line was to abstain and had not made arrangements to travel down that Monday in time for the vote. As there is no way to record an abstention at Westminster that could have been the explanation. No such luck. When I eventually got a reply last weekend this was her defence:
“My decision to abstain does not relate to my support for human rights but to my belief that devolved policy should be made by the people of that country and their elected representatives. This is particularly pertinent when Holyrood faces the removal of ultimate control over significant policy areas which have been devolved for 20 years.”
“There is no doubt that equal marriage and abortion are extremely important but they are devolved to Northern Ireland, as they are to Scotland, and I do not wish to see the devolved settlement unpicked.”
“the UK government plans to introduce these changes at Westminster by Statutory Instrument without any indication of what degree of consultation will take place beforehand. As it is I did vote on amendments that apply to the UK, rather than Northern Ireland domestic policy.”
I wrote back:
“I do not share your priorities that issues relating to devolution should take precedence over the opportunity to further equality issues in Northern Ireland. I have no idea what you mean by adding that Scottish devolution faces the removal of significant policy issues.
I share your desire to see the power sharing executive restored in NI but these amendments do not impede that happening and as you know they provided for the Assembly to continue to have full control over both equal marriage and abortion rights once it is restored. Many of your colleagues came to see that and voted for the amendments. I do not understand how you came to take a different view.
Far from denying NI people their democratic rights, it has been NI unionist politicians who have blocked the wishes of the NI citizens on these matters. All the evidence points to majority support for these changes as well as the support of NI sections of organisations like Marie Stopes; Amnesty International; Love Equality; TIE (Time for Inclusive Education) and the Alliance; Sinn Féin and SDLP political parties.
I fully support Scottish Devolution although I personally believe abortion rights should have remained a reserved issue. However, there is no comparison between the Scottish and Northern Irish devolution situation. In Scotland the Scottish Government is fully operational and both responsible and accountable for all devolved matters. This has not been the case in Northern Ireland for a very long time. We should be able to use constitutional means to further the human rights of their citizens until such time as the political parties agree to take on the responsibilities of devolution again. Scottish Nationalists seem torn between pursuing progressive social change and obsessing with constitutional niceties. I had hoped for better from you. I am very disappointed.”