NI Assembly election: Chances of change and trading places

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Pressing for change

People at a Belfast protest against abortion lawsImage source, Press Eye
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The campaign for reform of Northern Ireland's abortion law has been a long-running one

Northern Ireland has seen a focus on equality issues "dropping off" since the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, a human rights group has said.

The Equality Coalition said any political deal over the formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive must have human rights high on the agenda.

Rights matters have featured among the themes of the Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign, and the group hosted a hustings event on Friday ahead of next week's poll.

Emma Patterson-Bennett from the Equality Coalition said issues of equality were not central in the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 and the Fresh Start Agreement that was struck the following year.

But campaigners have "called them out" on that, she added, as she appealed for a change in attitudes.

Reform of abortion law and same-sex marriage has been blocked in the assembly despite long-running campaigns.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, meaning a woman can only have an abortion if her life or mental or physical health is at risk.

And Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where gay marriage is not legal.

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Politicians cannot "shirk" their responsibilities towards women, Grainne Teggart said

So, do activists think that losing devolution in Northern Ireland in the event of post-election political deadlock could be a price worth paying if it brought change from Westminster on those matters?

"There are some things that direct rule would give us," Ms Patterson-Bennett said.

"Commitment to gender equality could be slightly better; reproductive rights would probably be better; the right to equal marriage would probably not be an issue."

But she added: "If we bring in direct rule, there are decisions that need to be made on Brexit, on dealing with the past, and all of those issues where Northern Ireland really needs to be central in the discussions."

Regardless of the outcome of the election, "there can be no hiding" from politicians on reforming abortion laws, according to Grainne Teggart of the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

"All parties must play their a role in securing the reform that's much-needed and long overdue," she said.

"If we go into a period of direct rule, Westminster has responsibilities on these issues also.

"So, politicians can't continue to shirk their responsibilities to women, and we'll be calling on them to deliver the reform that's needed."

Image source, Press Eye
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Ethnic minorities are concerned about the impact of Brexit, according to Patrick Yu

Also discussed at the hustings were the rights of ethnic minorities.

Patrick Yu, who headed the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic Minorities, which helped people adapt to life in the region until it closed last year due to a lack of funding, said the biggest concern for the minority groups is whether or not their rights will be protected after Brexit.

He said there needs to be a new approach to politics when it comes to dealing with rights issues after polling day.

"If the people in Northern Ireland work collectively together, then I can see there would be change and that is very important," he added.

"We need to change the whole political practice here after 2 March."

Trading places?

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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood met his spitting-image in London

On Wednesday, we told you about SDLP leader Colum Eastwood's striking doppleganger.

James Barnard, a graphic designer based in London, caused a stir on social media this week when he posted photos revealing his striking resemblance to the Londonderry politician.

Well, Mr Eastwood was in London last night for a discussion on Brexit with other European leaders, and afterwards he met his spitting-image.

They've sent us a video, and Mr Eastwood suggested they swap roles for the rest of the election campaign.

Would anyone notice the difference?

BBC News NI's Campaign Catch-up will keep you across the Northern Ireland Assembly election trail with a daily dose of the main stories, the minor ones and the lighter moments in the run up to polling day on Thursday 2 March.