Northern Ireland’s ban on same-sex marriage and restrictions on abortion have officially come to an end in a historic moment.
Campaigners celebrated the changes after a last-ditch bid to block them ended in chaos and acrimony – and a midnight deadline passed meaning they are now law.
Last night the UK government confirmed a framework for legal abortion services in Northern Ireland will be in place by 31 March 2020.
And same-sex marriage regulations will be made no later than 13 January 2020.
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith declared: “This means, at the latest, the first civil same-sex marriages will take place on the week of Valentine’s Day 2020.”
It will take longer to allow religious same-sex marriage ceremonies, or convert existing civil partnerships, because a “short consultation” is needed.
Northern Ireland has for decades been the only part of the United Kingdom that does not allow same-sex marriage.
And it has a ban on abortions in almost all cases, even rape or incest, except where a mother’s life is at risk.
That has forced desperate mums to cross the Irish Sea for terminations.
In both cases Northern Ireland law is stricter than the Republic.
So MPs in London voted overwhelmingly in July to overhaul both laws if Belfast’s devolved executive – long dormant thanks to splits between unionists and nationalists – had still not been restored by October 21.
Today political leaders in Northern Ireland staged a string of walkouts as a last-minute bid to block the legalisation ended in acrimony.
Anti-abortion members returned to the Stormont chamber for the first time in two-and-a-half years in a desperate last-ditch bid to block the law.
But their attempt to rush through the move fell apart as it became clear a new Speaker could not be elected with both unionist and nationalist support.
Sinn Fein refused to turn up to the sitting at all – branding it a circus.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood turned up, but slammed anti-abortion members for “using and abusing people’s emotions and sensitivities” in a way that would undermine Northern Ireland peace.
He then stood up and walked out – taking other SDLP members with him.
That left anti-abortion DUP leader Arlene Foster in the chamber to denounce the scene as a “shameful day” that would give Northern Ireland the most liberal abortion regime anywhere in Europe.
She fumed “this is not a day of celebration for the unborn” and said her party would explore “every possible legal option” to oppose it.
She then also walked out.
It left a bizarre scene where the Speaker proposed to an empty chamber that the Assembly adjourned – and no one was left to answer him.