A double-edged sword: Reframing Northern Ireland’s relationship with Europe and the world

By | 29 February 2024

By Lara Hatwell

The relationship between Northern Ireland and Europe has dominated the headlines since the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement was signed in 2020. This has largely been a result of the Democratic Unionist Party, the (then) largest party’s opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and its subsequent refusal to elect a speaker, leaving the Stormont Assembly unable to form. Northern Ireland as a whole voted to remain in the EU, with the DUP the only major party to advocate Leave.

The Parliament Buildings at Stormont © 2024 Northern Ireland Assembly Commission

For the entirety of its existence, Northern Ireland’s relationship within the United Kingdom has dominated its politics, its culture and its people. The issue has become all the more prominent due to the repercussions of Brexit. But Brexit stands to represent something further for Northern Ireland, principally a fundamental change in its relationship with Europe and the world. Traits of isolationism, which can be seen creeping into British politics over the past decade, present hidden side effects for Northern Ireland. In the province, some of the most transformative legal changes of its history have only happened due to the intervention of international bodies.

For 26 years during the Troubles, Northern Ireland was under direct rule from Westminster. Since the formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1998, it has seen six periods of suspension, notably from 2002 – 2007, 2017 – 2020, and most recently, from 2022 – 2024. It has even spawned a fun little website which counts the number of days Northern Ireland has been without a government. At the time of writing, it excitedly reads ‘Northern Ireland has had a government for 25 days!’.[1]

It is during these periods without a regional government, that the particular relationship which Northern Ireland has with the outside world stands out most clearly.


1981 – Dudgeon v. the United Kingdom

In 1967, homosexuality was in part decriminalised  in England and Wales.[2] In 1980, it would be decriminalised under the same conditions in Scotland, and in 1982, in Northern Ireland as well. For Northern Ireland, the pivotal point for law reform was the ground-breaking 1981 case which Jeffrey Dudgeon brought before the European Court of Human Rights. It was the Court’s first ever gay rights case and set a monumental legal precedent that countries criminalising homosexuality were infringing on human rights.

Jeffrey Dudgeon in Strasbourg for ECHR hearing 1981 © Copyright – Jeffrey Dudgeon MBE

The case had been lodged by Dudgeon (pictured left) in 1976, following a police raid on numerous men involved with the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, the prominent force campaigning for gay rights in Northern Ireland. The CHLR had been campaigning for an extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, but had met with considerable hostility from Northern Irish public figures – Ian Paisley’s ‘Save Ulster From Sodomy’ is perhaps the most famous – and lukewarm inaction from Westminster. Despite recommendations in 1977 from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission that homosexuality between consenting adults should be decriminalised, Westminster continued to look everywhere but at Northern Irish law reform. Rumours abounded in 1978 that potential reform had been shelved in order to appease Ulster Unionist MPs. [3] By 1980, any chance of legislation seemed far beyond the horizon. The Dudgeon case however, would change everything.

The case was heard in Strasbourg in April of 1981 and ruled in Dudgeon’s favour in October[4]. A victory at last for the CHLR, who called on Westminster, now found guilty in a European court of violating human rights, to finally enact legal reform. After a number of further prods, an overwhelming majority (168 to 21) approved the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland.


2018 – CEDAW[5] Enquiry

In 1967, the Abortion Act legalised abortion up to 28 weeks with the approval of medical practitioners in England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, abortion remained illegal unless to save the life of the mother, or the pregnancy would result in the woman becoming a ‘physical or mental wreck’, conditions established following R v Bourne [1938] 3 All ER 615.

In March 2018, the United Nations’ Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) released a damning report about the abortion laws in Northern Ireland. It found the laws amounted to grave and systemic violations of human rights. The report recommended the state moved urgently to expand the legalisation of abortion and ensure no criminal charges could be brought against women or girls who underwent abortion.[6] It disregarded the argument of the UK government that they did not have responsibility for amending Northern Irish law as a result of devolution (at the time of the report’s publication, Northern Ireland had not had a sitting government for over a year). The CEDAW report internationalised what, for decades, had been a relatively contained domestic struggle.

Report published in 1989 by the NIALRA which pledged to do ‘everything within its means’ to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland © Northern Ireland Abortion Law Reform Association

In June, a case brought to the UK Supreme Court by the NIHRC (Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission) was dismissed on the grounds that the NIHRC themselves could not bring the case to court.[7] Significantly, however, a majority of judges agreed that abortion law in Northern Ireland infringed on human rights. Change it seemed, was now on the horizon. When no change came, rumours abounded that abortion rights were being used to persuade the DUP (fundamentally pro-life) to return to government.[8]

Following this, Sarah Ewart, a prominent Northern Irish abortion activist, agreed to put the case to her name and in January 2019, she began a highly publicised case in the High Court.[9] With pressure piling upon the British government, a section was added to the Northern Ireland Executive Act, making it the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.[10] Despite attempts by the DUP to call the assembly in order to repeal the Act, it gained royal assent in July. Over fifty years after the 1967 Abortion Act, reform finally came. A result of ‘bitterly fought, highly visible Pro-choice campaigns and… the findings of a CEDAW report secured by their work’.[11]



In the years since these two landmark events, further events have demonstrated that international bodies remain as important to change in Northern Ireland as ever. Following the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023, the Irish government announced they would pursue legal action against the UK government after being advised the Act breached the UN Convention on Human Rights.[12] In 2023, when Daíthi’s law (Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill) became trapped by secondary legislation, which required a sitting Executive, his parents declared they were willing to take legal action.[13] The implications were clear. By the end of the month, the British government had passed through the Act.

The NI Executive (February 2024) © Crown Copyright

The relationship between Northern Ireland and Europe has been the subject of much discussion since the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in 2020, but the relationship is one not so easily understood by the headlines. For Northern Irish social justice campaigns, their relationship with the outside world is a fundamental instrument for enacting change. In many cases, the final instrument. The pressure of international bodies allows these campaigns to move beyond the contained nature of politics within Northern Ireland, which remains extremely unstable. By moving beyond the province however, the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland are bypassed and their function appears to become obsolete.

‘The knowledge that the European Court will eventually force change has given the government unprecedented extra powers of delay and disinterest. It no longer needs to participate in standard democratic argument and discussion, rather it has exported its power. And necessary change is left to a process that is painfully slow, governed by lawyers and one which a government can prolong almost at will by shedding mounds of foreign office briefs and papers at every stage.’[14]

Jeffrey Dudgeon, writing in 1984, postulates as to what the intervention of international authorities may lead to in Northern Ireland. The province is left to watch on as neighbours such as the Republic of Ireland allow their citizens the opportunity to display their support for social  change.[15] Meanwhile, legislative change in Northern Ireland is achieved only by the few with the determination and resources to do so. Dudgeon’s prediction forty years ago appears to have come true. Now, as the Stormont Executive sits once more, it is granted an opportunity to rebuild its relationship with the public and work with individual campaigners to establish a cohesive legal and political process.


[1] Days since Northern Ireland had a government (howlonghasnorthernirelandnothadagovernment.com)

[2] It was decriminalised provided it was ‘in private’ and between two men above the age of 21.

[3] Peers, queers and commons, S. Jeffery-Poulter, p. 148 – 150.

[4] Dudgeon v the United Kingdom App no 7525/76 (ECtHR, 22 October 1981).

[5] United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

[6] CEDAW/C/OP.8/GBR/1 2018 – paras. 83 – 85.

[7] [2018] UKSC 27.

[8] The Abortion Act 1967: a biography of a UK law, S. Sheldon, p. 255.

[9] [2019] NIQB 88.

[10] The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, section 9. The ‘etc’ referred to the liberalisation of abortion laws and the legalisation of gay marriage, which still remained illegal in the province.

[11] The Abortion Act 1967: a biography of a UK law, S. Sheldon, p. 269.

[12] Troubles legacy act: Ireland takes human rights case against UK – BBC News .  Furthermore, the Belfast High Court has just found that the immunity clause of the Legacy Act breaches the European Convention on Human Rights (NI Troubles: Legacy Act immunity clause ‘breaches’ human rights – BBC News)

[13]  Transplant boy’s family would take legal action over law delay – BBC News

[14] Dudgeon, J., ‘The UK Supreme Court’, The Socialist, 5th March 1984, (https://jeffdudgeon.com/wp-content/uploads/simple-file-list/Gay-Rights/Strasbourg-case-article-by-Jeff-Dudgeon-page-1-of-2-in-a-BICO-magazine-1984.jpg)

[15] Ireland becomes first country to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote – The Irish Times, Irish abortion referendum: yes wins with 66.4% – as it happened | Irish abortion referendum | The Guardian


Further Reading:

*items are items contained within the Bodleian Law Library collections

Some items on display as part of the Law Library’s LGBTQ+ History Month Display. See Letters of the Law | Law Bod Blog (ox.ac.uk) for more info on our displays.

Roger Davidson and Gayle Davis, 2006, ‘Sexuality and the State : the Campaign for Scottish Homosexual Law Reform, 1967 – 80’, Contemporary British History, 20:4, pp. 533 – 558.

*Michael D. Goldhaber, 2007, A People’s History of the European Court of Human RightsLaw Library, Internat 575 G618.7a.

*Anne Hellum and Henriette Sinding Aasen (ed), 2013, Women’s human rights : CEDAW in international, regional, and national law. Law Library, Internat 570 H477.5a

Stephen Jeffery-Poulter, 1991, Peers, Queers and Commons: the struggle for gay law reform from 1950 to the present.

*Paul Johnson, 2016, Going to Strasbourg : an oral history of sexual orientation and the European Convention on Human Rights. Law Library, KM208.2 JOH 2016

*Austen Morgan, 2023, The Northern Ireland Troubles Strasbourg’s Article 2 in Legacy Cases: A Legal Essay. Law Library, KM201.N8 MOR 2023

*The Northern Ireland Abortion Law Reform Association, 1989, Abortion in Northern Ireland: the Report of an International Tribunal. Law Library, KN172.73. N8 NOR 1989

*Sally Sheldon et al, 2020, ”Too Much, too Indigestible, too Fast’? The Decades of Struggle for Abortion Law Reform in Northern Ireland’, Modern Law Review, 83:4, pp. 761 – 796. Law Library, Cw UK 300 M200. 

*Sally Sheldon et al, 2023, The Abortion Act 1967 : a biography of a UK law. Law Library, KN172.73 SHE 2023

*Hélène Tyrell, 2018, Human Rights in the UK and the Influence of Foreign Jurisprudence. Available online via SOLO.

Additionally, the Law Library contains the legislation and law reports relating to the mentioned cases and reforms.