Northern Ireland has long been the dirty little secret of the UK. Out of sight and out of mind across the Irish Sea, the UK’s most far-flung region has always been a place apart not just geographically, but also psychologically. Consumed by the Troubles, the violent civil conflict that raged between 1968 and 1998, our recent history can be confusing and bewildering to many. As a result, many in Britain unfairly view Northern Ireland as a dark and unruly place where bad things happen, like an embarrassing distant relative who shouldn’t be acknowledged unless strictly necessary.

Here, the treatment of minority and marginalised groups that would not have been tolerated elsewhere in the UK become a settled status quo, dismissed as a quirk of life in the little understood region, and not something for the rest of the nation to concern itself with. However, as the clock struck midnight on Monday night, that finally changed. Westminster finally acted to overturn Northern Ireland’s bans on abortion and equal marriage with much-needed and long overdue reforms.

Pro-choice supporters pose as they gather at Parliament buildings on the Stormont Estate in Belfast on October 21, 2019.

© Paul Faith/Getty Images

On the steps of Stormont yesterday, the region’s parliament, pro-choice and pro-marriage equality activists gathered for the historic moment when a new Northern Ireland was ushered into being. The momentous changes are the result of decades of campaigning by women and LGBTQIA+ rights groups, who have often risked everything to tell their personal stories and put a face to the suffering the bans caused.

Although abortion was effectively legalised in England and Wales in 1967, the legislation was not extended to Northern Ireland after local politicians objected on grounds of Christian morality. Instead, the region retained the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, a piece of Victorian-era legislation that pre-dates the invention of the light bulb and amounts to some of the harshest abortion restrictions in the world, making it a criminal offence with a penalty of life in prison to have an abortion – unless a woman’s health is at risk of serious imminent harm. It forced countless women to travel to England by air or sea for terminations instead.

Members of pro choice group Alliance for Choice make their way to Stormont on October 21, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

© Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Similarly, while equal marriage for same-sex couples was legalised in 2013 in England, with the first ceremonies taking place in 2014, the legislation was not extended to Northern Ireland after resistance from local politicians. As each year has gone by, Northern Ireland has slipped further behind the rest of the UK. Rallies and protests were organised as part of passionate grassroots campaigns, but often with a weary sense that few people outside of the region knew or cared.

Social media gave women and the LGBTQIA+ community a platform to speak out about their experiences and be heard, and with each story, the stigma slowly began to erode, and Northern Ireland’s outdated laws became increasingly impossible to ignore. In 2014, the journalist Lyra McKee, who was murdered by the IRA earlier this year, wrote a moving open letter to her younger self about growing up gay in Northern Ireland, and the intense psychological toll of being forced to feel “other” and “less than” the rest of society. The article struck a chord with many people here and quickly went viral, later being turned into a short film.

A newly painted mural featuring murdered journalist Lyra McKee, whose death sparked a new round of political talks chaired by the British and Irish Governments.

© Paul Faith/Getty Images

The previous year, a young woman called Sarah Ewart spoke openly about her experiences of having an abortion after she was told her unborn child would not survive birth. Rather than suffer in silence, Ewart contacted a local BBC radio station and told of her devastation at the loss of a much-wanted pregnancy, compounded by the distress of having to travel to England for a termination.

In 2016, a woman was put on trial for an abortion. The court was told the woman was just 19-years-old when she experienced a crisis pregnancy. She had tried to save money to travel to England for a termination but ran out of time. Instead, she performed an abortion on herself at home. Her flatmates found bloody remains in a kitchen bin and reported her to the police. The woman pleaded guilty and was given a suspended sentence.

As these stories emerged, the harsh human reality of the laws became impossible to ignore not just in Northern Ireland but also across Britain. Another key moment came when, following their failure to secure a majority government in 2017, the Conservatives entered a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party. The pact shone a spotlight on the previously obscure Northern Irish party, members of whom had been among the chief opponents of abortion and LGBTQIA+ rights. Years of intensive Brexit talks have also highlighted the ways in which Northern Ireland is treated the same as, or differently to, the rest of the UK – and resulting disparities in social justice.

Abortion-rights demonstrators march through the streets of Belfast ahead of a meeting of the Stormont Assembly on abortion rights and gay marriage on October 21, 2019.

© Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

In addition, following a breakdown in relations between nationalist and unionist politicians, the Northern Ireland government collapsed in January 2017 as the parties could no longer agree to govern together. As a result, the parliament has lain empty for almost three years, increasing pressure on Westminster to take responsibility in the absence of a local government.

In July of this year, MPs at Westminster decided to finally act. Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn tabled motions demanding that if the government had still not returned by midnight on 21 October, then abortion would be decriminalised and equal marriage would be legalised.

As the date drew nearer, local activists waited nervously to see if politicians would set aside their differences and return to block the changes from happening. However, as the clock hit midnight on Monday, the long overdue changes were secured. Within minutes, couples across Northern Ireland were celebrating engagements – many having waited years or even decades for the right to marry. Many pro-choice activists were left speechless, able only to sob with relief.

As a journalist from Belfast specialising in social inequality issues, I have come across many harrowing stories throughout my career of the impact of the laws. Teenagers struggling with suicidal feelings due to the fear they could be outed and ostracised for their sexuality. Women who performed abortions on themselves at home – alone, vulnerable and terrified of a knock on the door from police. Couples who had been engaged for years, forced to contemplate a civil partnership for fear older family members might not live to see the law change. Girls who have made up excuses about a “spa trip” or holiday to see a long lost cousin in England and then boarded a lonely flight to Britain to have a termination in secret.

As the law changed at midnight, I thought of their stories and how they might be feeling at that moment. I thought, too, of the untold stories that exist in every village and city in Northern Ireland, which cut across all age groups and walks of life. Today’s changes won’t undo the trauma they endured, but may go some way in healing some of that hurt. Crucially, a new generation may now grow up never knowing the pain of living under the bans. In years to come, they may come to hear about the cruelty that was once enshrined in law and be bewildered that the bans ever existed.

Due to Northern Ireland’s complex history as a post-conflict society and the painstaking rate of progress towards issues which have been long resolved elsewhere, it can be hard for people here to feel hope that change is possible. However, these changes are positive proof of what can come about through decades of determined refusal to merely accept things as they are, but to instead insist on what could be.