Northern Ireland needs equal marriage and abortion rights – but no referendum

‘Women in Northern Ireland should not have to cross the Irish Sea to access medical care that is their right.’ Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Owen Smith, the shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has a plan. He says that if Northern Ireland is to have a sustained period of unwelcome direct rule, he favours putting marriage equality and abortion to referendums so that Westminster can feel empowered to make change happen.

The shadow Northern Ireland secretary is right to want to see progress on both these issues – it is appalling that the people of Northern Ireland do not have the same equal marriage laws or reproductive rights as their fellow citizens in the rest of the United Kingdom. For the avoidance of doubt, our preference would be for the institutions to get back up and running as soon as possible. It is a tragedy that the UK government isn’t working harder to achieve that because of the survival pact Theresa May has signed with the DUP. Direct rule is bad for Northern Ireland for a whole range of reasons.

Owen Smith is right to say that if the parties of Northern Ireland cannot get their act together and restore power-sharing government then direct rule, however undesirable, must be used to make progress on LGBT and reproductive rights.

But he is wrong to say that referendums are necessary to give a mandate for change. For one, thing they are not required. Unlike in the Republic of Ireland, where these were constitutional questions, a referendum is not needed to change the law for either marriage equality or abortion. They are the preserve of legislators. Some will look to Australia. But the reason for the “consultative ballot” in Australia was a total failure of leadership, and should neither be indulged nor repeated.

The people of Northern Ireland have already had their rights on equal marriage denied because of the Democratic Unionist party taking advantage of the makeup of the previous assembly to abuse parliamentary procedure. Every poll shows that there is clear majority support for equal marriage in Northern Ireland.

Therefore Westminster, and particularly Labour’s front bench, should not be saying that there needs to be another public vote to provide a mandate. Members of the UK parliament already know that if the Northern Ireland assembly was up and running, such legislation would get majority support and the voters would overwhelmingly welcome it.

So if the parties of Northern Ireland cannot sort themselves out and form a government then the UK parliament must act now without delay, without the division of a public vote unleashing the worst sort of politics.

In Australia the LGBT community opposed the postal ballot on their civil rights because you should not have to ask the permission of your neighbour to be equal.

As in Ireland, the campaigns against same-sex marriage indulged homophobia and exploited homophobic tropes about LGBT people seeking to “recruit” young people. Some insinuated that homosexuality was a gateway to paedophilia. Others did much more than insinuate. In Melbourne, Stop The Fags posters appeared and then went viral with images of children cowering under a rainbow-coloured hand. This is what referendums do. They divide cultures, generations and families. They force LGBT people to come out to gain basic civil rights, not at a time of their choosing. For some it was liberating – for others, the consequences continue.

I fear a referendum on abortion would undoubtedly descend quickly into a vicious debate.

Having engaged in these debates on university campuses – places that pride themselves on being liberal-minded – I have witnessed first-hand how quickly they can sour, with accusations of “baby killers”, of women using abortion as contraception and other inflaming distortions.

In Northern Ireland, such a retrograde step is not necessary. Instead, we should work to build a majority in the assembly to legislate for the rights of women in Northern Ireland, impressing on the parties there that this is a human rights issue.

We need only look to Stella Creasy’s important victory earlier this year, enabling women from Northern Ireland to access abortions in England on the NHS, to see how cross-party parliamentary support can be won. It can – and must – now go further.

As it stands in Northern Ireland, women with the resources to travel to Britain to access an abortion can do so, while those who do not must carry on with an unwanted pregnancy or pursue an unsafe and unlawful procedure. Women in Northern Ireland should not have to cross the Irish Sea to access medical care that is their right.

The DUP have made clear their demands for a single UK regulatory framework: politically, economically and financially. Perhaps we can begin with social parity. That would ensure our citizens in Northern Ireland have the same reproductive rights and LGBT rights they deserve, the same as everyone else in Britain.

Richard Angell is LGBT officer of the Labour Irish Society and director of Progress.

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