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Backlash Emerges as Northern Ireland Government Promotes RSE Initiative

The government’s amendment to update its “Relationships and Sexuality Education Regulations” for Northern Ireland is facing strong criticism from grassroots campaigns and vocal Northern Irish MPs.

Section 9 of the Northern Ireland Act of 2019 granted the power for the British government to impose changes with regard to abortion laws, sparking strong opposition during the legislative process. Despite this, the Tory government proceeded to legalize abortion in Northern Ireland without restrictions up to 12 weeks and in other circumstances up to birth.

Under the same legislation, a new “sex and relationships” curriculum is now set to be introduced, which will teach secondary school students that they have a right to abortion and provide information on how to access the procedure.

‘Parents and Teachers Do Not Consent’

Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Jim Shannon, the DUP MP for Strangford, said: “Policies that impact on how our children are taught about religion and sexual issues should not be implemented without a mechanism and space to consult boards of governors or without the opportunity to implement normal practices.

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“Let me be clear: parents and teachers do not consent or comply, and that will be made clear in the days to come. There was a rally where a large group of people came together with some of their elected representatives to make that point.”

Around 3,000 people gathered in Central Belfast on Saturday for a protest against the introduction of contentious changes to relationship and sexuality education (RSE) in Northern Ireland’s post-primary schools.

The protest came in response to the British government’s decision in June to impose legislation mandating the teaching of abortion and access to abortion in secondary legislation.

DUP MP Carla Lockhart grilled the secretary of state for Northern Ireland yesterday in the commons, asking whether or not parents would have permission to remove their child from sex education classes. The secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, reassured her that children may be withdrawn at the “request of a parent.”

‘Leave Our Kids Alone’

Organized by the “Campaign Against RSE” group, the protest over the weekend featured speakers such as DUP MLA Dianne Dodds and Aontú Deputy leader Gemma Brolly. Attendees carried placards with the message “Leave our kids alone!” and banners proclaiming, “Taking a stand for our children’s future.”

Protesters, including parents, politicians, and teachers, gathered at City Hall in Belfast before marching to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) offices for a rally. DUP MLA Jonathon Buckley took to social media to commend the campaign for its well-run and dignified protest, expressing concerns about the new curriculum.

DUP MP Paul Givan, along with Dianne Dodds, attended the event and called on the Secretary of State to “Leave Our Kids Alone.” Givan urged constituents to “stand up, speak out, protect your rights” and advocated for opt-out provisions for young people and teachers regarding the curriculum changes.

Gemma Brolly, education spokesperson for Aontú, accused the government of steamrolling into schools with legislation on abortion access. She encouraged parents to research the curriculum’s content and support teachers who may oppose the changes. Brolly stressed the importance of maintaining trust in teachers and schools and urged parents to consult, clarify, and consent regarding these sensitive subjects.

Government Consultation Launched

On Monday, the Department of Education launched a consultation on excusing children from specific RSE classes, covering sexual and reproductive health, early pregnancy prevention, and access to abortion. The consultation will run until Nov. 24, 2023, with results informing future guidance for schools.

A public petition has also been opened, asking the government to repeal the RSE regulations altogether. It has amassed over 4,000 signatories in the last week, with 10,000 being needed to prompt a government response.

This comes as the government once again urged the DUP to return to power-sharing in Stormont, during Prime Minister’s Questions, today in the Commons. The DUP, which is the largest unionist party, has abstained from sitting in the Northern Ireland chamber, as its lawmakers seek further concessions from Westminster, over dissatisfaction regarding the Windsor Framework.

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