The Commons voted overwhelmingly to end Northern Ireland’s status as the last part of the British Isles without equal marriage and abortion rights, despite opposition from the government’s DUP allies.
The move to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples follows a long campaign by equalities groups in Northern Ireland and across the UK. The Labour MP Conor McGinn, who is from county Armagh and put forward the amendment to legislation extending the deadline for power sharing talks, hailed the 383 to 73 vote.
“The LGBT community in Northern Ireland will know that Westminster will act to ensure equality and respect for all citizens, and finally give them the right to marry the person they love,” Mr McGinn said.
An amendment from fellow Labour MP Stella Creasy extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland passed by 332 to 99. After the result, she tweeted: “Thank you to everyone who today stood up for equality in Northern Ireland – whether for same-sex marriage or abortion, today we have said everyone in the UK deserves to be treated as an equal.”
The votes sparked a major row within the SNP group at Westminster, which had been set to abstain out of respect for the devolution settlement.
Speaking in the Commons on Monday evening, Nationalist MP Gavin Newlands had said it was “a long-held principle that we on the SNP benches do not vote on matters devolved to other parts of the UK... we are not blind to the circumstances in Northern Ireland, but we intend to stick to that principle.”
But after an outcry on social media and lobbying by a handful of SNP MPs including Joanna Cherry, Stewart McDonald and Hannah Bardell, the party’s Westminster group leader Ian Blackford signaled that nationalists would be get a free vote.
There was anger within the SNP group, with MPs “trying to make others realise how badly this will go down”. One SNP source claimed the issue hadn’t been discussed before Mr Newlands spoke, and said the decision wasn’t supported by the First Minister.
Nicola Sturgeon tweeted minutes after Mr Blackford, saying: “I’m not in the House of Commons but if I was, I’d vote for amendments on [Northern Ireland] equal marriage and women’s right to choose”.
Another party source highlighted a column in Mr Blackford’s name on Sunday supporting trans equality, saying: “If you’re going to put out puff pieces one day, it’s ludicrous to say you’re not going to vote on the substance the next day.”