Heartless: DUP blocks Stormont from passing organ donation law to aid 6-year-old boy
Other parties accuse Democratic Unionists of placing their Brexit demands over Dáithí Mac Gabhann’s urgent medical needs.
BELFAST — As a six-year-old boy awaiting a heart transplant watched from above, the Democratic Unionist Party blocked the Northern Ireland Assembly from passing a law designed to save the child’s life.
Tuesday’s thwarted vote at Stormont illustrated the depths of Democratic Unionist opposition to the post-Brexit trade protocol for Northern Ireland. Its leaders stood alone as other parties pressed the DUP to permit final passage of legislation dubbed “Dáithí’s Law” in honor of the boy, Dáithí Mac Gabhann, and his parents in the visitors gallery.
But for the sixth time since May’s assembly election, the Democratic Unionists again used their veto powers to prevent the election of a speaker, an essential first step. This obstruction means the legislature at Stormont cannot function, most crucially blocking its ability to form a cross-community government in line with Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord.
During a 40-minute Stormont debate, the DUP’s former first minister Paul Givan gazed upward, smiling at the Mac Gabhann family and praising them for their courageous campaign. Then he dumped blame for the political impasse on the U.K.’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris.
Givan claimed Heaton-Harris had already privately assured DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson that the U.K. government would pass enabling legislation for “Dáithí’s Law” through the House of Commons. He accused Heaton-Harris of “releasing statements to the media and saying different things in private to political parties.”
The U.K. government previously adopted this “direct rule” approach to overcome DUP opposition at Stormont by extending British laws on abortion rights and same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland via the Commons.
Stormont dysfunction once again has left Northern Ireland trailing behind the rest of the U.K. in adopting a law already established throughout Britain. “Dáithí’s Law” mirrors legal changes in force in Wales since 2015, England since 2019 and Scotland since 2021. The law in each jurisdiction presumes people have automatically consented to have their organs donated after death unless they have registered their opposition into a government database.
Northern Ireland, by contrast, still permits organ donation only under the U.K.’s previous rules, restricting it to cases where the deceased person had explicitly registered their consent beforehand. This sharply limits the potential pool of donors.
Dáithí has been waiting for nearly five years to replace a heart that has only half of its chambers working. His condition, known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome, often proves fatal for children within the first few years of life and requires a heart transplant for any longer-term shot at survival.
A year ago, the boy posed for photographers on Stormont’s steps, his arms raised in jubilation, after the assembly passed the law. But it cannot come into force until the assembly passes supplementary Department of Health-drafted regulations defining how specific types of organs and tissues will be handled.
On Tuesday following the DUP’s refusal to permit this vote, his parents Máirtín and Seph – who have studiously avoided direct criticism of the DUP – again talked off camera with Givan, their boy napping nearby in his wheelchair.
The parents said they intend to travel next week to London to lobby Conservative MPs to support a DUP-backed amendment to an unrelated piece of legislation, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill. That bill – which postpones a potential new assembly election to April 2024 and shifts more decision-making responsibilities to Heaton-Harris and Stormont civil servants – is scheduled to pass all parliamentary stages with little debate on Wednesday, February 22.
Behind the scenes, Heaton-Harris has rejected the idea of shoehorning the “Dáithí’s Law” regulations into this bill as legally cumbersome and impractical, while Parliament would have difficulty finding time to debate and pass any private member’s bill on the matter.
Assembly members from five other parties pleaded in vain for the DUP not to waste time pushing the issue at Westminster. They noted that Dáithí was only one of 134 people on Northern Ireland’s list of patients seeking transplants.
An assembly member representing the Mac Gabhanns’ home district of west Belfast, Gerry Carroll, called the DUP stance “absolutely cruel.”
“We’re talking about a 6-year-old boy who’s waiting on a new heart,” Carroll said. “People’s lives are more important than the DUP’s protocol protest.”