Monday, 13 January 2020

Northern Ireland January 2020

On Saturday 11 January, the Northern Ireland Assembly met at Stormont, Belfast. Apart from a brief (48 minutes) plenary sitting on 21 October 2019 (Video), the Assembly had not sat since 13 March 2017.

The Assembly was created by the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Elections were held on 25 June 1998 and the Assembly first sat on 1 July 1998 but existed in "shadow" form until 2 December 1999 when full powers were devolved. Since then the Assembly has operated intermittently and has been suspended on five occasions - (for details see Wikipedia).

The 2017 breakdown
of power-sharing arose from the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - (sometimes referred to as "Cash for Ash).  The scheme worked by paying applicants to use renewable energy. However, the rate paid was more than the cost of the fuel, and thus many applicants were making profits simply by heating their properties.

The political scandal first came to light in November 2016, by which point Arlene Foster (Democratic Unionist Party) had become Northern Ireland's First Minister.  Foster refused to resign or stand aside during any inquiry, saying that to do so would be seen as admitting to some culpability in the matter. This led to the resignation of Martin McGuinness ( Sinn Féin) as Deputy First Minister and to the collapse of power-sharing.

An Inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive was set up under the chairmanship of Sir Patrick Coghlin - a retired member of the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland. The inquiry concluded its public evidence sessions on 26 October 2018 and closing submissions were completed on 14 December 2018. The Inquiry has yet to report.

On 9 January 2020 the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Tánaiste published the text of a deal to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland - see Northern Ireland Office 9 January. The deal, entitled New Decade, New Approach was agreed by the political parties.  It provides for full restoration of the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement including the Executive, the Assembly and the North/South Ministerial Council.  The House of Commons Library 10 January published -  Northern Ireland Assembly: "New Decade, New Approach" - which examines proposals in the deal  to reform the Assembly and Executive.

Legal changes:

In the absence of the Assembly, a number of important legal changes have come about. The changes are described by the Northern Ireland Office (22 October 2019) - Changes to the law in Northern Ireland: updated

The UK Parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which received Royal Assent on 24 July 2019. It was introduced in order to give more time for the Northern Ireland parties to agree to return to the Northern Ireland Executive.

As the Northern Ireland Executive was not restored by 21 October 2019, the Executive Formation Act placed an obligation on the UK Government to change the law in Northern Ireland relating to three important issues.

The Act required regulations to be made in the following areas:
Same sex marriage / opposite sex civil partnership:

From Monday 13 January 2020, CIVIL same sex marriage and CIVIL opposite sex civil partnerships became possible in Northern Ireland. A link to the Regulations is below.  The intention of government is to extend the law to cover religious same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland for those religious organisations that choose to to do so. Changes to the law on converting civil partnership to marriage (and vice versa) are also planned.

Abortion services:

See the Supreme Court of the UK judgment in Application for Judicial Review by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission [2018] UKSC 27 - 7 June 2018 - Lady Hale, Lord Mance, Lord Kerr, Lord Wilson, Lord Reed, Lady Black, Lord Lloyd-Jones

The background to access to abortion services for women in Northern Ireland is set out in a report by the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee published on 25 April 2019.

A new framework providing safe and lawful access to services will be in place by 31 March 2020.

A consultation took place from 4 November to 16 December 2019 - see here

From 22 October 2019, sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 were repealed in relation to Northern Ireland. Hence, no criminal charges can be brought under that Act against women and girls who have an abortion or against qualified health care professionals or others who provide and assist in the abortion.

Victims' Payments:

The government held a consultation from 22 to individuals living with permanent, serious disablement caused by injury in a Troubles-related incident through no fault of their own. See here

Links to legal material:

Northern Ireland Act 1998

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

The Marriage (Same-sex Couples) and Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2019

Hansard - Northern Ireland Assembly

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