BELFAST • Same-sex marriage and abortion laws in Northern Ireland have been liberalised in a landmark shift for the province aimed at bringing it into line with mainland Britain but which has stoked resentment.
The relaxation of the United Kingdom-ruled territory's restrictive laws on the issues occurred at midnight, after a deadline elapsed for local lawmakers to stop the changes imposed by Members of Parliament in Westminster.
British lawmakers in July approved decriminalising abortion and creating lawful access to abortion services, as well as rolling out new regulations to allow same-sex marriage and civil partnerships.
They gave Northern Ireland's assembly - suspended since January 2017 - until this Monday to institute alterations to the reforms, which will see the province broadly match the rest of Britain. Abortion and same-sex marriage are legal in England, Wales and Scotland.
The assembly was briefly restored on Monday, but without support from opposition parties, they were unable to constitute an executive and pass any changes.
"At midnight, history will be made," Amnesty International's Northern Ireland campaign manager Grainne Teggart said on Monday hours before the deadline. "This is a hugely significant moment and the beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland - one in which we're free from oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and healthcare."
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Julian Smith told Parliament the law forbidding abortions would be repealed at midnight and there will be a moratorium on criminal prosecutions.
"A new legal framework for lawful access to abortion services in Northern Ireland will be put in place by March 31, 2020," he said.
Meanwhile, regulations for same-sex partnership will be outlined by Jan 13. "This means at the latest, the first civil same-sex marriages will take place on the week of Valentine's Day 2020," Mr Smith added.
The Members of Legislative Assembly who returned to the chamber of devolved government at Stormont were predominantly from the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Without participation from the main opposition party Sinn Fein, they could not form an executive under the region's power-sharing laws. "It is a very sad day," DUP leader Arlene Foster told reporters after leaving the chamber.
"I know some people will seek to celebrate today and I would say to those people: 'Think of those of us who are sad today and who believe that this is an affront to human dignity and to human life.'"
Pressure has been growing in traditionally conservative Northern Ireland for its abortion law to be relaxed, in particular following the landslide 2018 referendum to repeal the abortion ban in the Republic of Ireland.