Organ donation: Stormont stalemate delays opt-out donation law

A system for opt-out organ donation in Northern Ireland will be delayed from taking effect due to the Stormont stalemate, BBC News NI has learned.

The bill, passed last year, would automatically make people donors unless they specifically state otherwise.

The legislation was due to become operational this spring.

But the Department of Health said the start date is not achievable in the absence of a functioning Stormont Assembly.

At the time the original bill was approved, then-Health Minister Robin Swann said it would be known as Dáithí’s Law after six-year-old Dáithí MacGabhann, who is waiting on a heart transplant.

His family has long campaigned for a change in the law in Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the UK where an opt-out system is not yet in force.

Legislation waiting but frozen

The delay in enacting the law relates to extra legislation, which must be passed by Stormont.

In a communication seen by BBC News NI, the Department of Health said that “secondary legislation is required to clarify which organs and tissues are covered” under the opt-out system.

It states that legislation has been “prepared and is ready to be introduced” in the assembly, but the ongoing political deadlock means that cannot happen yet.

Secondary legislation is commonly used to fill in the gaps of new laws to enable them to be enforced and, if needed, updated over time.

The Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill was approved by assembly members (MLAs) at Stormont last February.

There was then a built-in 12-month implementation period including the recruitment of staff, training and education with the system expected to kick in from spring 2023, following the passing of the secondary legislation.

However, Stormont has been without a functioning government for 11 months as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is blocking the formation over its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Without DUP support, ministers cannot be appointed to take decisions in a power-sharing executive, and it also means no legislation can be passed locally.

The Department of Health said contingency plans have been activated that would allow its implementation planning to “remain in a state of readiness pending the restoration of the assembly”.

It added that, until then, public awareness campaigns will continue to promote the forthcoming law change.

But the department said: “It is not possible in the absence of the assembly to confirm a ‘go-live’ date for Dáithí’s Law.”

Alliance assembly member Paula Bradshaw said she has written to the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris asking him to use powers, in the absence of a minister, to enable the department to enact the system.

“A year ago we had a day of positive politics when the assembly came together on behalf of people relying on transplants,” she added.

“There are now legitimate concerns that another casualty of one party’s refusal to restore the institutions will be the practical commencement of this bill, which could now be unnecessarily delayed.”


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