By Jonathan McCambridge, Richard Wheeler and Ben Hatton, PA
Westminster MPs have backed a new organ donation law for Northern Ireland, known as “Dáithí’s Law”.
Lawmakers supported the change to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill as it passed through the UK House of Commons.
The Bill received an unopposed second reading and will now head to the House of Lords for further scrutiny.
Six-year-old Dáithí MacGabhann from Belfast, who is waiting for a new heart, high-fived his dad when MPs backed the change.
Dáithí’s family travelled to London to watch the regulations introduced by the British government clear their Commons stages.
The UK government has moved to progress the stalled legislation on the opt-out donation system because the political impasse at Stormont means local Assembly members have been unable to convene to pass the regulations.
Speaking at Westminster before the Bill passed, Dáithí's father Máirtín MacGabhann said: “It’s an emotional day and a very proud day.
“The victory is finally sinking in. I don’t think it will fully sink in for a few years maybe.
“We have met with the Secretary of State [Chris Heaton-Harris] this morning. There was celebration in the air.
“We are just delighted, beyond proud of Dáithí, beyond proud of ourselves and looking forward to Dáithí’s Law being implemented.
“Over the past few weeks we have been let down again and again. We didn’t think we would be here today, but we are.”
Mr MacGabhann said he expected the Bill to get final approval on March 6th with Dáithí’s Law in place for early summer.
Last week, a bid to restore the Assembly to pass the law failed when the DUP again exercised its veto to prevent the election of a speaker, meaning no further business could be conducted.
Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Heaton-Harris said he was taking the “exceptional step” of progressing the legislation at Westminster following cross-party support for the plight of Dáithí.
Dáithí smiled and waved to MPs as the Commons debate got under way on Wednesday.
Mr Heaton-Harris praised the family for their “valiant efforts”, telling MPs: “They should not need to be here today to see this change being put in place. The Assembly could and should have convened to take this across the finish line.
“I recognise that this issue is exceptional both in terms of the sheer importance it holds and also the cross-party support it commands both in Northern Ireland and this house, and on that basis the government has tabled … important amendments to this Bill to facilitate those changes to be taken forward in the Assembly in the continued absence of a speaker.”
Mr Heaton-Harris said the changes will become operational by the spring.
He added: “When I was talking with Dáithí earlier today I asked him whether he fancied his chances of getting elected here and trying to put us all straight, because a bit of common sense in some of our dealings would probably go a long way, and I think he and his family have displayed that in huge quantity.
“I know he also met Mr Speaker [Lindsay Hoyle] and is now the proud owner of a Speaker teddy bear.”
Mr Heaton-Harris said the six-year-old was “going to make some history today”.
He said: “Obviously I want to see the assembly in place, and the assembly should have done this … I do recognise that this issue is so important that it warrants an exceptional intervention from the Government.”
Shadow Northern Ireland minister Tonia Antoniazzi said: “I want to say thank you to Dáithí, he’s an inspirational little boy, and I’m not sure he knows yet quite how much of a difference he and his family have made across Northern Ireland, because frankly he has made history.”
Conservative MP Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said he supported the change, but added: “There is follow-up work that needs to be done on a public information campaign in order to ensure maximum understanding of it and take-up of the opportunities that it provides.”
Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill tweeted that it was a “huge day” for people waiting for a transplant.
This is a huge day of hope for Dáithí & all people desperately waiting for a transplant as Dáithí’s Organ Donation law will come into effect from Spring 2023
Today belongs to Daíthí, Máirtín, Seph & all that campaigned for this life saving law
Thank you for never giving up! 💓 pic.twitter.com/Z0bmKGROzb
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) February 22, 2023
The opt-out system, which already operates in the rest of the UK, will mean adults in Northern Ireland would be presumed to be donors, unless they took a decision to opt out. It was being implemented to increase donation rates in the region.
The UK government Bill will also delay the requirement for the formation of an executive at Stormont until January 18th next year and delay an Assembly election to April 11th at the latest.
The British government said the additional time would allow the Stormont parties “to focus attention on restoring devolved institutions” as well as providing space for continued UK/EU dialogue over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The DUP collapsed the devolved executive a year ago in protest at the post-Brexit protocol and the party has made it clear it will not lift its block on powersharing until radical changes are made to the contentious Irish Sea trading arrangements.