Irish bishops have expressed alarm about a law passed by Britain’s Parliament that would legalize marriage equality and abortion in Northern Ireland if the province’s self-government is not restored by late October.
The July 17th letter from Northern Ireland’s four Catholic bishops claimed British leaders had “hijacked” the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill by adding provisions about equal marriage and abortion rights. Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry, and Bishop Lawrence Duffy of Clogher wrote to former Prime Minister Teresa May, according to Toronto’s Catholic Register:
“‘We appeal to the Prime Minister and Westminster government to move to overturn this hijacking of the … bill for purposes for which it was never intended and to uphold the right of citizens in Northern Ireland, under the Good Friday Agreement, to decide these matters for themselves.’
“‘The equal right to life, and love, of a mother and her unborn child is so fundamental to the common good of every society that citizens deserve the fullest participation in the democratic debate about the legislation which governs it. This also applies to decisions regarding the nature of marriage.'”
Bishop John Sherrington, an auxiliary of Westminster (London), released a July 12th statement on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales according to the National Catholic Reporter. He called the then-bill “an imposition enacted by a Parliament which is overwhelmingly not from Northern Ireland” and said the British Parliament was undermining devolution, or decentralized governance that allows provinces to govern themselves, in Northern Ireland.
Regardless of the bishops’ protests, the new law was passed by both houses of the British Parliament on July 18th. It will go into effect October 21, 2019 unless Northern Ireland’s provincial government is restored. This development seems unlikely since the power-sharing arrangement between Irish Nationalists and Unionists, which is required for the province to govern itself rather than be governed by Britain’s Parliament, has been dead since 2017.
Catholics have acted largely opposite their bishops on the question of equal marriage in the province. When Northern Ireland’s Assembly was functioning, marriage equality was hotly contested and, over the course of five votes beginning in 2012, had been gaining support. The two traditionally Catholic parties backed equal marriage while Protestant politicians remained opposed. Polling showed marriage equality had majority support in the province, as well as among British residents overall. More recently, it was a Catholic member of the British Parliament who helped start discussions of marriage equality there. Conor McGinn introduced equal marriage legislation during Holy Week 2018, and said by doing so he was “living the message of the gospel.”
In this case, opposing equal marriage seems a secondary cause where abortion rights are clearly their target (Northern Ireland retains some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe). Some of bishops’ concerns about British intervention into Northern Ireland’s complex politics may even be warranted. Marriage equality seems to be a reality to which the bishop are resigned, yet they still feel the need to protest it, if flatly. That is a notable development. But they are incorrect to call the British Parliament’s intervention a “hijacking.” Justice delayed is justice denied. LGBTQ people in Northern Ireland should not have their human rights withheld because the power-sharing agreement fell through given there was a proper remedy available. Congratulations to the Catholics who helped bring equal marriage to Northern Ireland!
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, July 27, 2019