Northern Ireland organ donation law blocked by political stalemate sent to UK parliament

An organ donation law in Northern Ireland set to make all people potential organ donors and inspired by Dáithí Mac Gabhann, a 6-year-old waiting for a heart transplant, is blocked by a local political stalemate over Northern Ireland protocol. The law is now sent directly to the UK government as an alternative.

Dáithí Mac Gabhann
Dáithí Mac Gabhann is waiting for a heart transplant and has been fighting with his family for a new organ donation system in Northern Ireland | © Donate4Dáithí, Facebook, February 15, 2023

(Update February 23rd: the amendment was passed by the members of Parliament of the United Kingdom)

Dáithí Mac Gabhann is a six-year-old waiting for heart transplant who has touched Northern Irish’s hearts and become the face of change in the organ donor system. He and his family have been pushing for a law to be passed so that all people after their death are considered potential organ donors unless they stated otherwise. But the law cannot be passed by Northern Ireland’s Parliament due to a political stalemate over the post-Brexit protocol. The matter is now sought to be solved directly in the United Kingdom Parliament.

Northern Ireland is in fact the only part of the United Kingdom where an opt-out organ donation system is not in place, yet. But an amendment to a bill is going to be proposed in United Kingdom Parliament as a solution to bypass inoperative Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly, that prevents the law from passing.

Conservative party member Chris Heaton-Harris, the secretary of state of Northern Ireland in the government of the United Kingdom, tweeted on February 20, he has been “incredibly moved by Dáithí’s story. In recognition of how important this issue is, I will bring forward amendments to the Executive Formation Bill which will allow for the overdue legislation to be made by
[Department of Health in Northern Ireland] and see this law become a reality.”

The law in Northern Ireland has been actually called Dáithí’s Law after the child fighting to change the donor system. It was introduced in September 2021 and voted on by the Northern Irish Parliament in February 2022.

But additional legislation was later needed to specify which organs and tissues were covered specifically by the opt-out system. However, Stormont’s work has been blocked since last May by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in protest over the post-Brexit protocol for Northern Ireland.

In the current protocol, Northern Ireland is outside the European Union’s single market with no customs check or restriction on the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to avoid resurging troubles with a hard border. Moreover, goods from Northern Ireland may be moved without restriction to Great Britain but not the other way around. Unionists, therefore, consider this creates a border separating Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The DUP, the main unionist party of Northern Ireland, has been boycotting parliamentary work since last May and the results of the latest legislative elections.

Legislative elections were organized last year after First Minister Paul Givan of the DUP resigned in a protest over the Northern Ireland protocol’s outcomes. But the DUP lost three seats and Sinn Féin, the Irish political party that wishes Northern Ireland to leave the UK and become one country with the Republic of Ireland, then became the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time.

A unionist party has had the most seats at Stormont since Northern Ireland was formed in 1921. But Sinn Féin cannot take up the office with a first minister unless the DUP agrees to nominate a deputy first minister as part of powersharing devolution.

And the DUP has been refusing powersharing and blocking the nomination of a deputy first minister and speaker since then.

The DUP blocked again the election of a speaker at the Stormont Assembly last week, the sixth failed attempt to elect a speaker since last May. No debate nor law can take place or be voted on in the Assembly without a speaker.

But the DUP made clear they would not drop their boycott because of the organ donation law, arguing the legislation could still be dealt with by the Parliament of the U.K. with the intervention of the Northern Ireland secretary.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, earlier in February said he intended to submit an amendment in the U.K.’s House of Commons to the Executive Formation Bill to empower the Secretary of State to enact regulations so that the additional legal definitions become effective. Mr. Heaton-Harrishad had raised concerns that this legislative route would take longer and might prove difficult.

The DUP also argued the U.K. government and Sinn Féin have been using the organ donation law as a political tool to put pressure on the party to remove its boycott.

Mr. Heaton-Harris pointed out on Monday that the “UK Government’s intervention here is exceptional. Decisions such as these should be being taken by locally-elected decision-makers.”

Jonathan Buckley, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly and of the DUP, in a reply to the secretary of state, praised the decision was right but considered that he and his office “should hold [their] head[s] in shame” because the way they “attempted to use Dáithí and his family as a political football was despicable.”

Dáithí Gabhann’s father, who spoke to Mr. Heaton-Harris on Sunday, told the BBC today was an “extremely emotional day” and said his family would travel to London on Wednesday, February 22 to watch the debate on the bill.

The organ donation legislation will be included in an amendment to the Executive Formation Bill in the House of Commons, the lower house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Commons Speaker’s office may however consider the legislation is beyond the scope of the Executive Formation Bill as it is meant to extend the period for the Northern Ireland Parties to work together to return to government by a year to 18 January 2024.

Dáithí Mac Gabhann was born in 2016 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, meaning a side of his heart did not form correctly. He received a heart procedure no later than last week.

The new donor system may be in place by summer 2023.

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